Changing Immigration, One Step at a Time

Luis Arbulu is a Founder and Partner at Hattery, and an Entrepreneur in Residence with USCIS.

I am a foreign-born entrepreneur. Originally from Peru, I studied engineering in Lima and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US: first engineering at the University of Kansas and then business at the Wharton School at UPenn. I followed the immigration process - from J-1 student visa to OPT to H1B to F-1 to green card and finally in 2008 I was naturalized and became a U.S. citizen. I worked at Google as finance lead, head of investments, and manager, working on advertising products, energy, and data platforms. Now, I am co-founder of a seed stage venture fund and consultancy, Hattery. Our team is growing by the day, and I have the extremely rewarding task of helping new startups grow and thrive.

Recently I was contacted by the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS)  and asked to be part of their Entrepreneur in Residence Program — a really great initiative to get entrepreneurs, USCIS staff, and other experts together to collaborate on issues surrounding skilled immigration and entrepreneurship. The program embeds a small group of investors and entrepreneurs into the USCIS for 90 days, with clear objectives and deliverables. [Read our post about EIR here - Engine].

As an Entrepreneur in Residence, I’m invited to share my own knowledge based on my experience as a foreign-born entrepreneur in order to better pave the way for future innovation and economic growth spurred by immigrant entrepreneurship. This country’s success is largely based on the hard work and determination of immigrants throughout its history — a legacy I’m very much proud to be part of. Startups are almost the sole driver of new job growth in this country, and foreign born entrepreneurs are responsible for starting some of the country’s most successful and job-creating companies, like Google. This is something that hits close to home for me — since it was only after eleven years in the US that I was able to start my first company.

What I and the other participants of the program have found is that the current immigration system for skilled foreign-born workers does not encourage harnessing the talent and drive of foreign-born entrepreneurs to grow the U.S. economy.

Immigration is an issue at a legislative stand-still. While there are some measures on the agenda, the issue of undocumented workers easily gets conflated with skilled immigration and stalls proposed legislation. While it’s important to pursue legislative change, another avenue to explore is optimizing the current system: making it as user friendly as possible, and giving foreign-born skilled workers the tools and resources to use the visas that are currently available. This includes working with the USCIS to train adjudicators on how startups and tech companies have evolved (funding levels, SaaS, incubators and accelerators, etc.), in order to clarify and potentially innovate in the processes for foreign-born entrepreneurs starting companies across the US.

Another way to optimize the current system is to work with the USCIS to change the rules and policies on the current visas — a measure that doesn’t require going through any legislative branch — in order to help foreign born entrepreneurs to start their own companies. At the moment, workers here under an H1B visa can’t fulfill the requirements of the visa unless there is an employer-employee relationship, and that’s something we will be looking into in the program.

This country was built on immigration, and I am proud to be here continuing that tradition, with partners like Engine and others in the space who understand the importance of entrepreneurship to growing the US economy. And I’m looking forward to working with the USCIS to find new pathways to success for immigrant entrepreneurs. Read more about the program here.

Combatting America’s “Brain Drain”

“America no longer has a monopoly on knowledge”.

So said Vivek Wadhwa; tech entrepreneur, academic and one of the panelists at an information summit we went to today for the Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR) program. EIR is a Department of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) led initiative to get entrepreneurs, experts, and USCIS staff together to discuss the problems and possible innovations around immigrant investors, entrepreneurs, and highly skilled workers, and today was the initiative’s official launch.

The initiative aims to combat “brain drain” — the idea of highly-skilled workers leaving the US after getting their education here to start businesses in their homelands —by moving on skilled immigration, an issue that’s ostensibly nonpartisan and noncontroversial. A brain drain is what America will experience if we’re unable to attract and retain the best, smartest workers and entrepreneurs — these people will move overseas and innovate and create businesses there, harming U.S. competitiveness in the global arena.

Studies show that foreign-born entrepreneurs are responsible for creating thousands of American jobs and generating billions of dollars in revenue. Michael Moritz, panelist and partner at Sequoia Capital, said that the number one problem facing the economy today is the need to bring to America these entrepreneurs who want to start companies — but it’s not just getting them here, it’s keeping them here. Solutions on the table include removing per-country caps on skilled worker visas via a bill that’s already working its way (slowly) through the legislative process, “stapling” a green card to graduate level students’ STEM degrees, and a startup visa.

In practice, in an election year, and with the Congress that we have, moving on anything is tricky. But, as President Obama noted in his State of the Union address, making some tweaks to skilled immigration has a much better chance of success than comprehensive immigration reform. However, there’s plenty in the pipeline for this issue. California 16th District Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren spoke today about her IDEA Act of 2011 as part of the answer to these problems. And we’re also following the Startup Act, a legislative agenda for startups that includes skilled immigration reform as part of a package of fixes to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses that will create jobs and bolster the economy.

In the end, we’re hopeful the EIR process bears fruitful results and finds new pathways to success on the immigration front. If today’s event was any indication, they seem well on their way, and it’s time to step up pressure on Congress and the White House to act on these issues with innovative solutions.

After the Jobs Bill

Yesterday, in a widely anticipated vote, Senate Republicans blocked efforts by the Senate leadership and the Administration to pass the President’s $447 billion jobs bill. The maneuver leaves the President’s plan, laid out last month before a joint session of Congress and campaigned upon across the country for the last few weeks, dead on arrival. 

So where do we go from here? What is the next step that we can take now to get the Engine of growth in this country running again?

Simply put, we can’t, as entrepreneurs or advocates or the skilled-but-unemployed or politicians sit back and wait for next November. There are real, critical, dynamic issues that demand attention and need it now. 

One of those issues is immigration, and how we keep skilled labor, people of exceptional talent and thinking and entrepreneurs working in America. For years, the visa process has stood in the way of keeping that talent on our shores. In times past, with America booming and shining like the beacon of freedom and ingenuity to the world, we could overlook these types of issues. No one was going to start a business of promise anywhere but here.

But in a globalized world, things have changed. Whether it’s STEM students returning home because there simply are more job opportunities there, or others seeking opportunities in programs like Startup Chile, where you can apply for a 1-year visa and a $40,000 grant if you begin your startup process in Chile, or wanting to leave a position with a company as an immigrant to start your own business and losing your ability to do so in this country, the world has grown up to American standards - and in many ways, has passed them. 

Utah Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz has introduced a bill to the Congress to begin advancing America’s cause in a small way. His bill, HR 3012 - the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act, would work on amending one key piece of the puzzle in terms of allowing companies to hire high skill workers, as well as allowing those high skilled immigrants the opportunity to start businesses in America. Under current law, of the certain number of employer based visas issued every year, so called EB class visas, the allocation is done on a percentage basis by country of origin, with each country receiving 7% of the allocation. So, if you come from China, or you come from Liechtenstein, you have access to 7% of the pool, and is further exacerbated by the fact that it can lengthen wait times for green card status by decades. (Oh, and nothing against Liechtenstein, I hear it’s a beautiful country, we’re simply making an argument about scale here.)

Chaffetz’s bill would move that cap to 15% of the pool for countries with historically higher application rates and population pools in the short term, which in the long term should reduce the wait times for green cards to a more manageable length of time - Vivek Wadhwa of The Washington Post asserts they could fall to as little as 12 years or less. 

Again, this is not earth-shattering legislation, it will not fix our issues for entrepreneurs and visa limitations overnight, but it is roughly analogous to a common ground piece of legislation offered in the previous congress by California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, and, more importantly, it moves the conversation forward. And when you couple bills like the one offered by Chaffetz with moves like the ones taken by USCIS this week, namely the creation of an “entrepreneurs-in-residence” program to take a look at these issues, as well as the Startup America initiative, we begin to see a way to get past the talking points and the punditry and work towards real progress. 

In short, we have an opportunity here. Let’s take it, and together, move the conversation and start on the road to real reform, real progress and expansion of opportunity.