With immigration reform off the agenda, some in tech turn to plan B


Maybe we can't reform the whole immigration system, but the startup world just wants this one thing.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

President Obama said late last month that since Congress isn't moving on the issue of immigration, he intends to take executive action to change the country's policies. And that is getting some in the tech world to turn to their plan B,, too, on an issue that was once a major focus for the industry.

It's a much smaller plan, from a much smaller community. And it's far less ambitious than than what people were hoping for just a year ago when the industry--notably Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg--got behind a lobbying push for more H1B visas for highly-skilled foreign born workers. That proposal was controversial because some critics view it as a way for tech companies to simply save money on labor costs by relying on lower-paid workers from overseas. Hope for that idea has now dwindled, along with the prospects for the immigration bill itself.

But Alexis Ohanian, a tech investor best known as the co-founder of reddit, thinks it's time for the industry to get behind another angle on visas: expanding the O1A visa, which is set aside for "individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement" in the field of science, education, business or athletics. There is no limit to the number of O1A visas that can be distributed. In 2013, the State Department issued 12,359 -- up from 10,590 in the previous year.

Ohanian's idea is to get more of these visas to promising startup founders. But the current criteria for getting this visa is not, he said, currently equipped to do so. Ohanian would like to see a few changes made to reflect the current startup environment. For example, the visa currently states membership in selective professional associations as proof of exceptional work; Ohanian would like to see admittance into startup funds such as YCombinator or 500 Startups included in that requirement. Or, he said, significant contributions to open-source coding or other computing projects could be seen as a form of original research.

Allocating any amount of those visas for tech founders, he said, would provide much-needed help as the industry waits for a broader legislative fix. And he says he's not even asking for an exact number of visas for startup founders.

This sort of idea has been proposed before, most recently through a bill from Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) last year that would create an employment-based visa for startup founders with significant funding from U.S. investors or revenue from U.S. customers. The proposed law would allow them to stay for at least two years to build up their businesses.  But that legislation has been caught up in the gridlock over immigration reform.

Ohanian, in his role as an "ambassador" for the startup incubator YCombinator, traveled earlier this month to Washington to lobby for his idea. He visited nine congressional offices on both sides of the aisle as well as administration officials. He was also accompanied by the founder of the retail startup Shoptiques, Olga Vidisheva. Vidisheva, herself a YCombinator graduate, moved to the United States from Russia when she was 17.

Both said there is bipartisan support for their proposal.

"We're really proposing so little," Vidisheva said. She told members of Congress that she's seen fellow co-founders and even retail partners have to leave successful businesses in this country because of visa problems -- often having to let go dozens of U.S.-born employees in the process.

Getting startup visas in the U.S. wouldn't end all of the tech industry's immigration woes, of course. "There's literally not a startup I haven't talked to that's not having visa problems," Ohanian said.

But he thinks it will help keep the United States from losing its place of prominence as the tech capital of the world. Twelve other countries already have startup visas like the ones he's proposing, he said.  The Canadian government has put up billboards for its startup visa program in Silicon Valley that say: "H1B problems? Pivot to Canada." In Chile, he said, the country will even give you seed money.

If things don't change, Ohanian thinks things look grim. "Someday there's going to be a headline: 'U.S.-born, American startup founder finds the Chilean dream,'" he said. "That's gonna make me so sad."

 

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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