Controversial advertisement in BART stations ignites H1B1 visa immigration debate

A new ad campaign on the BART system is turning heads, and for some people, stirring controversy.

The message targets the tech sector, but it’s also igniting the old debate over immigration.

The latest rail wrinkle for BART actually sits just above the iron, and on the walls.

These billboards went up this week, raising eyebrows and turning heads.

“It does seem anti-immigrant to me,” said BART passenger Laura Leaverton. “I saw them this morning and I wasn’t sure who was behind it. I was a little bit suspicious because it seemed like they were targeting non-US citizens. So that generally makes me suspicious,” added fellow rider Luna Alonso.

The large messages lining the walls call on tech workers to force congress to fix the H1-B1 Visa system that allows foreign workers with marketable skills to get employment.

Advocates for immigrants rights see something else.

“The language that they use is anti-immigrant in my opinion. But understand free speech doesn’t necessarily mean accurate speech, right,” said immigration attorney Ronald Cabanayan. “Of course I want my home team to do well. But I also need you to be just as skilled as someone coming from Russia, or Ghana,” added tech sector recruiter Marinda Thomas of the San Francisco-based firm Codepath.

The Washington, D.C. based non-profit Progressives for Immigration Reform paid $8,000 to put these ads up primarily at BART stations at 19th Street in Oakland, and at Civic Center in San Francisco.

They’ll be up into April.

“We’re hoping that tech workers can have the same considerations as other workers, such as blue collar workers,” said Kevin Lynn, the executive director of Progressives for Immigration Reform.

From his Washington, D.C. office, he says the ad campaign is meant to inform tech workers and others of the growing trend of trading American workers for H1-B1 visa holders, in older to reduce corporate costs.

He points to a House bill sponsored by South Bay Congressman Ro Khanna to close loop-holes and abuse in the work visa programs. “The vast majority of the H1-B1 workers that are being brought in are rather ordinary in terms of skills and education. And they compete directly with American tech workers in this space,” said Lynn.

That competition, he contends, leads to American job loss. 

BART officials declined to comment on-camera about the ads, but released a statement that says in part, “This campaign complies with free speech laws that allow advertisers to express a point of view without regard to the viewpoint. BART must post these ads to comply with the law. BART does not endorse these ads.”

“We would put up other things. Let’s share educational materials about the rights of immigrants and the value of a society that respects everyone,” said Oakland city council member Rebecca Kaplan.

Officials for Progressives for Immigration Reform say they’ve received positive social media feedback about the billboards, and will asses the success and the possibility of another campaign.