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.