Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

About a year ago I blogged in this space about proposed federal legislation that would have opened a new visa pathway for international entrepreneurs with potentially viable business start-up plans.  That bill, sponsored by senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) did not pass into law.  This week the New York Times, in its Dealbook section, is reporting that an updated bill has been re-introduced in the current session.


Given the partisan split between the two houses of Congress this year, prospects still look challenging for any immigration bill that would confer benefits on non-citizens.  Immigration reform, even in incremental small bits, has taken on the aspect of the proverbial "third rail" - do not touch under penalty of political death. Still, there are some developments that may open up the field for fresh approaches.


First, the fundamental premise of the Start-Up Visa program remains sound.  International talent has always been a crucial ingredient in the development of technology ventures, and many of our largest and most successful tech firms have had immigrant founders.  These firms hire more American workers than their immigrant founders displace, yielding positive net job growth, and spawn additional innovation-based spin-offs in the process.  Tech is the quintessential global enterprise, and the free flow of information and ideas is its signature characteristic.  The corresponding free movement of high-skilled professional workers is an underlying condition for healthy growth in the innovation ecosystem.


Wider appreciation for this view may be growing.  Recently, Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) proposed doing away with the Diversity Visa Lottery system, a program that allots green cards for permanent residence on the basis of geographic representation.  He would utilize the 50,000 freed-up green cards for international graduates of U.S. programs in Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields of study.  This is coming at the tech workforce issue from a slightly different angle, but coming from Issa, never known as an immigration advocate, may indicate a growing recognition that high-skilled immigration issues can be de-coupled from the problems of low-skilled labor migration from Latin America.  That, in itself, would be a sign of a more rational perspective, in my view.


Additional signs of rational thinking on immigration appeared this week, and from the extreme margins.  Arizona, a forefront state in the national immigration debate, declined to take its anti-immigrant regulations to the next level following a united outcry from its business community.  Citing measurable economic losses to the state in the hundreds of millions of dollars resulting from its hard-line anti-immigration policies, Arizona legislators opted to heed the counsel of business leaders, and moderate its stance.  Even in Arizona, when anti-immigration regulations start costing jobs, it may be time to re-think.


Despite the emergence of new support and a clear mandate to create new jobs in a soft recovery, the Start-Up Visa program remains something of a long-shot. Its such a good idea though, that it deserves the support of the tech community. Especially here in Hawaii, where we struggle with our own brain drain, recruiting innovative entrepreneurs is a win-win deal.


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Comment by John Robert Egan on March 23, 2011 at 2:42pm

Aloha Tony:  Its true that immigration policy overall is (and should be) a federal issue.  However, a few states and some cities have started to actively encourage immigrant entrepreneurs because of the measurable economic benefits.  The Immigration Policy Center recently featured New York City's efforts to attract immigrant businesses. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has published a report documenting the positive effects of high-skilled immigration (Executive Summary here).  In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick has established a task force to advocate for improved of opportunities for immigrants.

In principle Hawaii could do any of these things, or take an altogether different approach. What do you think?

Comment by Tony Donnes on March 23, 2011 at 9:14am
Immigration law is traditionally federal law, but there is an interaction with state law.  And we know that states to some degree can add their own immigration statutes.  Is there anything we can do here in Hawai‘i—at the state level—to increase our number of highly-skilled, foreign workers, entrepreneurs, etc.?  I mean, Hawai‘i cannot implement its own "start up visa" program, but what can it (we?) do?
Comment by John Robert Egan on March 21, 2011 at 10:00pm
I would ask that politicians hold back on using immigration as wedge issue, and observe the economic vitality immigrant entrepreneurs bring to Americaʻs efforts to compete in our globalized world.
Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 21, 2011 at 4:47pm
You nailed it Brian. The politicians' xenophobic rhetoric is based on the false assumption of a zero sum gain.
Comment by Cameron Souza on March 21, 2011 at 4:43pm

> P.S. Maybe it's because politics is a zero sum game? Either I'm elected or you're elected..

> There's no way "we" can win.


Thats an interesting thought. Maybe that does shape their view of the world. Its always me or you, never we.

Comment by Brian on March 21, 2011 at 4:02pm
P.S. Maybe it's because politics is a zero sum game? Either I'm elected or you're elected.. There's no way "we" can win.
Comment by Brian on March 21, 2011 at 4:01pm

The core issue, in my observation, when (idiotic) politicians get involved in driving policies that shape the economy substantially is the mistaken notion that economics is a 'splitting up the pie' zero sum game.


So we're told we need to "Fear China" and engage in trade protectionism. All this will do is leave us behind and make us poorer. We're basically handicapping ourselves.

Comment by Paul Graydon on March 21, 2011 at 1:58pm
The namby-pamby "lets be nice to the locals" approach has also helped engender the entitlement attitude in a number of generations.  Kids are graduating with a belief that they are entitled to a good job with good pay to fund a lavish lifestyle :)  Used to cruising through life, and the suddenly having a shock when they don't get that great pay, and find themselves stuck in crappy jobs.  Politicians should be asking "Where is the incentive for our kids?" not "How can we appease the masses by removing competition"
Comment by Daniel Leuck on March 21, 2011 at 1:39pm
The counter-argument against high-skilled immigration is that allowing international workers into the workforce displaces American workers.
The Economist had a great article about this a few months back. This argument is popular with politicians but, as you mentioned, all evidence is to the contrary. Adding smart, educated and motivated people to your economy is a net positive no matter how you slice it. Companies have an insatiable appetite for top engineers and scientists. The more of them, the better. If it makes poor performers who have grown complacent pick up their game thats OK :-) Its time for us to give up our obsession with where a person of good character who has the desire and the means to contribute to our economy happens to have been born. Forcing top students to go back to their countries when they graduate is not a winning strategy.
Comment by John Robert Egan on March 20, 2011 at 8:31pm

Aloha Brian:  Thanks for your comments.  In this context "American workers" would be U.S. citizens and/or green card holders, as opposed to workers on temporary work permission.  The counter-argument against high-skilled immigration is that allowing international workers into the workforce displaces American workers.  Recent research indicates that this is not the case in the area of high tech, knowledge intensive industries.


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