Since President Obama’s State of the Union address, there’s been a flurry of discussion about what current immigration reform discussions mean for families. That’s undeniably an important discussion to have, but another facet of the discussion should look at what these types of reform mean for technology jobs, particularly within Silicon Valley.
Much of the often-heated discussion focuses on illegal immigration. But the president also addressed the legal immigration challenges faced by highly skilled, well-educated professionals and the companies that want to hire them. The steps he is taking are good ones, but they are just the beginning of the reforms the U.S. tech industry needs to maintain its global leadership.
I’ve been on both sides of this particular issue. I studied computer science at one of the top engineering universities in India and came to the United States to pursue my dream of starting a tech company. It took seven years to get my green card, and then, within six months, I founded my company. That was in 2008. Today we have more than 500 employees, and we’re constantly looking for skilled engineers.
The technology business runs on talent, and those who have top engineering talent have an advantage. A big reason for Silicon Valley’s success and a big global competitive advantage has been its ability to attract top engineering talent not just from all over the country, but from all over the world. Research shows that 25 percent of high-tech companies founded between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder. And 75 percent of companies funded by American venture capital had a core executive on their leadership team who was born in a foreign country.
The gist of the problem for us in Silicon Valley is that there just aren’t enough highly skilled engineers, programmers and technical personnel to staff the booming tech industry. It’s a critical competitive issue.
Two of the most important changes the president is ordering directly affect those individuals waiting to get their green cards and “legal permanent resident” status. Currently, the green card process can take anywhere from one or two years or five to ten years, depending on which country you’re from. And in that time, the individual cannot start a business, or change jobs easily, and his or her spouse cannot work at all. This has been an extreme hardship for many of these immigrant engineers.
Being stuck in a job with no options can stifle growth and opportunity, and also opens the door for abuse by employers. And because these are highly educated professionals, it’s likely their spouses are skilled professionals, as well. It’s totally unreasonable to prevent them from working while waiting years for their spouse’s green card to come through.
My wife is a CPA, and she was prevented from working at any job for many years. I am so grateful for her patience, but those were trying years; my hope is that no one coming to America, the land of opportunity, will ever have to face those struggles again. Thankfully, the president is ordering Department of Homeland Security to make regulatory changes that will loosen these restrictions on job changes and spousal employment.
President Obama is also ordering DHS to propose changes to “expand and extend” the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program for post-secondary science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students, which allows graduates to extend their stays after graduation. Some people at my company remember when that program gave them an extra 12 months in the U.S.; currently, it’s up to 29 months.
He is also “enhancing options” for foreign entrepreneurs, if they meet certain criteria for creating jobs, attracting investment and generating revenue. The details are fuzzy, and this is a kind of chicken-and-egg problem for meeting these criteria when you’re just starting a company. We’ll see how this pans out.
These are the actions that will most affect us in the technology industry in Silicon Valley. They are steps in the right direction, but this is Silicon Valley — we need leaps. Part of the problem is that there is only so much the president can do on his own.
To recruit the engineers we need from abroad now, we need more H-1B visas. Only Congress can raise those limits. Currently, 85,000 H-1B visas are available every year (if you include the 20,000 for advanced degree graduates from American universities). In 2014, only half of the people who applied succeeded in getting an H-1B visa, and that ratio is expected to get worse in 2015. And even for the half or so who apply and get an H-1B visa, and the companies that want to hire them, the process is far from over.
In summary, we need to speed things up and simplify the process. Here are four steps Congress and the president can and should take right now to secure and advance America’s technology leadership:
- Make more H-1B visas available to satisfy our demand for skilled workers.
- Streamline the green card process and radically shorten the time it takes to gain LPR status.
- Make it easier for workers and their spouses to be employed productively and contribute to the economy while they are waiting.
- Fix the green card per-country allotment system — currently, green cards are distributed evenly among countries — so India and China get the same amount as the smallest country in the pool; and if those smaller countries don’t use their allotment, those green cards go unassigned and can’t be transferred to another country.
The president and Congress should at least be able to agree to solutions for these specific issues. This is about legal immigration, growing businesses, creating jobs, and strengthening America’s technology brain trust. That shouldn’t be a partisan issue.