Monday, February 11, 2013

Immigration Reform: Now or Never?

ProfessorVC celebrated his 50th birthday this past week in his hometown of Washington, DC, with visits to the Capitol Hill and the White House to meet with legislators and White House officials on immigration reform.  It was a very timely visit and hopefully our group along with many others descending on Capitol Hill over the coming weeks will help spur action.

Our delegation was led by Carl Guardino (CEO of Silicon Valley Leadership Group) and Greg Becker (CEO of Silicon Valley Bank) and included a number of young Silicon Valley CEO's, VC's, and university representatives.  I fell in to all three camps representing San Jose State University, Startups (through my CFO/board roles) and Investors (with my angel investor hat on).  We met with a wide range of legislators from both sides of the aisle, including Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Representatives Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Raul Labrador (R-ID), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), David Schweikert (R-AZ), Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ).  We also had breakfast with our local house delegation of Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, Mike Honda, Jackie Speier and Eric Swalwell (the junior member who happens to be tall and decided to stand in front of me in the picture below.) At the White House, we met with Cecilia Munoz (Director, Domestic Policy Counsel), Ari Matusiak (Executive Director Office of Business Liaison), Doug Rand (Policy Advisor Science and Technology), and Nick Sinai (advisor to US CTO).

For somebody who grew up in DC and has high school classmates in both the Senate and House, but have been geographically removed for the past 25 years, it was very interesting to get a glimpse of the political machine, but it also confirms the reasons I've spent the past 25 years in Silicon Valley.

We had the opportunity to meet with people behind the four major proposals that have (or will) be put on the table since the end of January: Senate (Gang of Eight), Senate (I-Squared), House, and White House.  We were specifically advocating to fix the broken H1-B and Green Card programs and to provide visas and green cards to startup entrepreneurs and STEM degree holders.

Along with my academic colleagues on the trip from Stanford, Berkeley, and UC Santa Cruz, I've had many exceptional students take advantage of our higher education system and then be forced to return home after graduation to work at and build companies.  One of my recent students went through the 500 Startups Accelerator, raised $1M in funding and is now in process of building the next Instagram in Bangalore, at least according to the Business Standard, India's leading business daily.

The backlog of those waiting for employment and family visas is huge (estimates at 4.5 million and wait times as long as 24 years), not to mention those playing the visa lottery and dealing with per country caps.  120,000 tech jobs are available every year, yet we can only fill 40,000 of these.  Over half of the graduate students in STEM related fields are from outside the U.S.  We are providing them skills and sending a majority back home.  In addition, we have many college students and graduates who came to the US as children, have been educated here, consider the US their home, yet can't legally work.  According to the Center for American Progress, an estimated 2.1 million youth (out of approximately 12 million total undocumented population) could be given a pathway to citizenship with the DREAM Act.  This could add $329 billion to the US economy and create 1.4 million new jobs by 2030.  Comprehensive reform would address both the high tech skilled worker issues as well as DREAM Act and agricultural workers.

A few takeaways from the trip:

  • Go Big or Go Home (similar to the venture capital model).  Baby steps aren't going to happen.  If it doesn't, many of these legislators will be sent back after 2014 mid-term elections and could also be a stain on Obama's legacy.  It seems clear that the people spoke last November (Mitt, you could've played this one better), but that doesn't necessarily move the political football down the field. While Orrin Hatch seems to believe a narrow solution (I-Squared) can be a starting point with additional reforms added afterward, most of the democrats we met with and the White House officials believe nothing short of comprehensive will pass.  We pushed Hatch to at a minimum add the Startup Visa to his proposal, but he was concerned with the challenge of adding a new visa category. He believes that the O-1 Extraordinary ability visa covers this, but that feels like a kluge to me. 
  • The government is trying to get more entrepreneurial.  The US CTO is looking for "bad ass entrepreneurs" (White House term) for the next group of Innovation Fellows.  These 6-12 month paid stints are a great opportunity to get involved if you are between start-ups or can get a leave from your tech employer.  We also met with the SBA, which seems to be trying to make working with the government much more startup and investor friendly, although for some reason it was easier to enter the West Wing of the White House than the SBA.  One of the guys we met with (Andrew Lee) is an EIR at the SBA and came from Zynga who bought his start-up, Jam Legend.
  • Blackberry is alive and well in DC.  Haven't seen so many blackberries since before the launch of the iPhone.  And many of these look like they date from early in Obama's first term.
  • Pictures aren't allowed in the West Wing (go figure) so was forced to take this picture of me and the Jarrett Fishpaw (the 25-year old mayor of Los Altos) outside the White House gates.  Yes, it was not only my 50th birthday that made me feel old.

What can you do? Write your legislators! Visit Washington! Apply to be a Presidential Fellow! Just get involved! As one of my mentors advised me years ago, if you don't get involved in the solution, you can't complain about the problem.  Good advice I'll take in to my next 50 years...