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Originally published March 2, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified March 3, 2013 at 1:25 PM

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Foreign workers’ visas familiar territory for Rep. DelBene, a former Microsoft exec

For U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, the personal meets the political when it comes to H-1B visas for high-tech foreign workers. The Medina Democrat’s former employer, Microsoft, is a leading advocate in Congress for expanding the visa program.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene understands Microsoft’s need for temporary work visas for skilled foreigners probably as well as anyone in Congress — and what she doesn’t know she could just ask her husband.

DelBene, a freshman Democrat from Medina, is a former Microsoft executive who bankrolled her two congressional races with her high-tech wealth. Her husband, Kurt, is president of Microsoft’s Office Division, one of the company’s biggest business units.

Now DelBene sits on the House Judiciary Committee with jurisdiction over immigration laws, an issue of keen interest to Microsoft and other companies seeking to bring in more educated foreign workers from India, China and elsewhere.

For DelBene, it adds up to an uncommon convergence of the personal and the political over one of the thorniest issues facing this Congress.

She sees no conflict between her background and the role she may play in shaping immigration legislation, including the H-1B visa program for skilled foreign workers. Ethics watchdogs agree, though they caution that her extensive ties to Microsoft should temper her involvement on the issue.

DelBene’s Microsoft connection gives her a firsthand understanding of the controversy over H-1B visas, whose increasing demand by employers is stoking worries among American computer programmers and engineers that their jobs are being outsourced at home.

Like Microsoft, DelBene sees imported talent as a source of expertise and entrepreneurial innovation. And like her former employer, DelBene believes educated immigrant workers are critical to keeping the U.S. economy competitive globally.

“If they can’t start their companies here, they’ll start them some other place,” she said.

DelBene emphasizes that her approach to any immigration overhaul goes beyond the concerns of one industry. Her 1st District encompasses not only Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters, but stretches from Bothell’s biotech hub north to the berry, dairy and vegetable farms in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

DelBene said that, among other things, the immigration system needs to become nimbler to whittle through a huge backlog of people waiting to become permanent residents; curb exploitation of temporary foreign workers; and ensure that agricultural, technology and other industries have access to an adequate labor force.

She also said companies should pay visa workers “appropriately.” Critics of H-1B programs contend that outsourcing firms and other employers bring in high-tech workers at below-market wages.

“There shouldn’t be a financial incentive to bring someone from overseas,” she said.

Years at Microsoft

DelBene worked a dozen years at Microsoft during two separate stints, finally leaving in 2007. Kurt DelBene joined Microsoft in 1992, three years after his wife; they married in 1997.

Suzan DelBene said that as vice president of marketing for mobile communications at the company, she hired workers on visas, though not as much as other divisions did.

Microsoft is one of the nation’s heaviest users of H-1B visas, accounting for about 10 percent of its 57,000 U.S. workers.

DelBene put in $2.8 million of her own money for her second, successful run for Congress last year.

Microsoft executives and employees, including Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, were her second-biggest source of cash, chipping in $132,200. That made DelBene the third-biggest recipient of individual donations from Microsoft in the 2012 elections, behind only President Obama and Mitt Romney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., which tracks money in politics.

Brad Smith, Microsoft executive vice president and general counsel, has been a high-profile voice on Capitol Hill in urging Congress to free up more H-1B visas as well as green cards, to allow the workers to stay on permanently.

Last month, a bipartisan group of senators rolled out a bill to dramatically expand the visa program, lifting the current annual cap of 65,000 to as much as 300,000 over several years. DelBene said she met with Smith to discuss the visa issue as part of Microsoft’s legislative agenda.

DelBene laughingly sidestepped questions about any domestic lobbying from her husband. She does not see her connections to Microsoft tainting her judgment “because there is no policy that is being put in place for any one company.”

Kurt DelBene declined to comment. Lou Gellos, a Microsoft spokesman, said, “While the company has been vocal about immigration reform, Kurt is not talking about this.”

Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy group, said the visa issue’s far-reaching nature mutes ethical qualms about DelBene.

Still, Holman said, she “should not be the lead in crafting or championing the legislation.”

Round tables

Last month, DelBene held a series of round tables in King and Snohomish counties with biotech executives, immigrant students and others to talk about immigration proposals.

One of those attending was Sailesh Chutani, co-founder of Mobisante of Redmond, which makes smartphone-based ultrasound systems.

The India native’s career arc embodies the best hopes of immigration advocates: He entered the United States on a student visa, worked under an H-1B visa to help start a technology firm later sold to IBM, became a permanent resident and spent a decade at Microsoft, and is now an American citizen.

Chutani, who did not know either Suzan or Kurt DelBene at Microsoft, thinks the United States only benefits with each H-1B worker, virtually all of whom are college graduates and half of whom have master’s degrees or higher.

He does not consider Suzan DelBene’s high-tech background a conflict of interest.

What Chutani saw was a lawmaker who sought out real people and took “the time to engage and listen and hopefully do the right thing.”

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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