The next time you use your favorite phone app, take a moment to think of the people who worked behind the scenes to develop it. The perpetual influx of of cutting-edge programs, services and apps we enjoy today is heavily reliant on the vast swathes of foreign immigrant programming engineers that work hard to produce them. In this light, it comes as little surprise that Silicon Valley has been demanding that the United States make serious changes to its immigration laws for over a decade. Their reasoning is that changing immigration law would enable even more highly skilled employees to come into the country to work in the exploding technology industry.
Unfortunately, the changes enacted last week by President Obama failed to live up to the expectations of both the technology industry and hopeful job-seeking immigrants. Some of the more pressing barriers, such as accelerating the process of getting a green card and making a greater number of visas available for skilled technology jobs, are things the President can’t do on his own. They require action from Congress.
That said, many foreigners holding jobs in America’s technology sector feel encouraged by the latest move by Obama, stating that it could still help make it easier to live and work in the United States. For instance, one of the President’s initiatives would enable prospective entrepreneurs to qualify for a founder’s visa, as long as they can get funding from outside sources. This option is of particular appeal to Laks Srini, who helped to found Zenefits, an up-and-coming San Fracisco-based company.
Immigration Change Affects Both Small And Large Tech Businesses Alike
Under the current immigration laws, Indian-born Srini was forced to have Parker Conrad, the company’s co-founder, employ him as a database administrator just so his visa could be transferred from his last job, thereby enabling the pair to create Zenefits.
Zenefits, which is just under two years old, is an internet-based service that assists other companies with employee benefits management. It already boasts 450 employees.
Unfortunately, Srini, who now serves as the company’s chief technology officer, is currently unable to switch to a visa with more flexibility that would better suit his position at Zenefits. The visa he’s trying to obtain is for potential employees with exceptional skills. It has been dubbed the “I’m Awesome” visa due to its dozen or so rigorous requirements meant to prove an applicants’ prestige in their area of expertise.
Srini, while motioning toward the groups of desks around his own, stated that the current laws are making it exceedingly difficult for him to find skilled engineers to work at the company. Due to the fact that the type of visa typically used by software developers, H-1B, expires every April, he’s left with one opportunity per year to employ highly qualified foreign-born employees. If that candidate wasn’t able to get his or her visa, Srini is left with the arduous task of looking for someone else who is equally qualified.
According to Srini, “When you’re a young business just starting out, you’re at the mercy of speed.”
Because Canada’s immigration laws are much friendlier than those in the United States, Zenefits is attempting to move some of the available jobs in San Francisco to Vancouver.
Srini said that immigration is a tricky and sensitive issue, but that policy-makers in Washington don’t seem to understand that the company employs 10 American employees for every one foreign citizen that gets hired.
President Obama made two other proposals that might make job recruitment easier for Zenefits and other technology firms. One such proposal would allow a person who has obtained an American technology or science degree to work at a single company longer after they’ve graduated. This is known as “optional practical training”. Right now, there is a 29-month limit on this. President Obama has asked immigration policy-makers to begin paving the way toward making these rules more flexible and realistic. By enabling a longer optional practical training period, businesses would be able to recruit more employees than is allowed by the H-1B’s current yearly limit of 85,000.
Changes to the policies that regulate the work ability of spouses could also be immensely helpful, Srini believes. He says that the company has been unable to hire many highly skilled prospective employees because their wives were unwilling to sacrifice their ability to work just so their husbands would be able to get work in America.
A Scotland native on the H-1B visa, Glynn Morrison, was one of the first employees at Zenefits. However, Morrison’s wife, who is a citizen of South Korea, still is not allowed to work here, even after living in the United States for almost two years. She wishes to find work as an accountant, but the current immigration laws prevent her from working legally in even the most basic jobs. Even though she already possesses a bachelor’s degree, she says she’s thinking of pursuing another simply so she can obtain a work visa.
Her husband, Mr. Morrison, says, “Having all of these people living in the United States and unable to work makes absolutely no sense. They could be paying taxes.”
Although both Morrison and Srini will probably figure out ways to keep living in the United States over the long run, things are considerably less certain for Dutch-born Charlotte Brugman. Brugman currently works for a nonprofit organization in San Francisco called Samahope, which dispenses medical services to nations that are still developing. Both Ms. Brugman and her husband, Johannes Koeppel, a Switzerland native and a student of the University of California at Berkely, are attempting to understand how they can expect the President’s new immigration proposals to affect them.
As a citizen of Denmark, Ms. Brugman is only legally allowed to work in the United States because of her husband’s visa status. Because he is a student on a Fulbright scholarship, the allowances of his visa are much more permissive. Other spouses of immigrant students at the university are unable to get any job at all.
Koeppel is currently working on starting an online travel company with his two American-born co-founders. Unfortunately, once he finally obtains his business degree in the coming year, how long he and Ms. Brugman can continue to live in the United States is up in the air. If the immigration policies don’t change within that time period, the couple will have a year and a half before they are forced to leave the country.
Because of this difficult situation, Koeppel hopes that he can qualify for Obama’s proposed founder’s visa. However, when considering the information that is available so far, he might be in for a dilemma. You can’t receive the founder’s visa if you can’t raise money from outside investors. Yet, if those investors are uncertain about your ability to remain living in the country, they’re going to be reluctant to invest any money.
The ambiguity of the President’s current immigration proposals are bewildering to almost everyone. It’s obvious that the biggest issues cannot be tackled without getting Congress involved in the matter. However, people working in Silicon Valley are saying that they fail to comprehend precisely how the new proposals will affect them. For the most part, the President has described broad concepts and passed them on to be figured out by immigration policy-makers and task forces.
According to Ms. Brugman, “The meager amount of information in the speech did little to help us understand how the proposals would impact us.”
All together, President Obama’s proposed visa changes to allow more highly skilled employees into the United States would bring roughly 147,000 more people into the country’s labor pool by the year 2024. This information comes directly from White House Council of Economic Advisers analysts.
Sadly, for plenty of people working in the nation’s technology jobs, it’s not enough and it comes too late.
The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, headed by Carl Guardino, its Chief Executive Officer, stands for a number of Silicon Valley’s big technology businesses. Mr. Guardino says that the entire industry is disconcerted. Why? Because President Obama promised to pass extensive reforms to the nation’s immigration laws during his first year in office, yet he failed to do this.
Mr. Guardino says about the speech given by Obama on Thursday, “The President spoke passionately and in great detail about low-wage employees, and I can respect that. From my own perspective, though? I didn’t have any great expectations, and his speech lived up to them.”