US visa reform holds vital lessons for Irish economy
I’m not sure what’s in the Washington water at the moment – silicon? – but for some reason, they’ve gone geek-happy on Capitol Hill this week.
In a flurry of activity, both the president and members of the Senate have been offering up separate technology visa proposals, aimed at fast-tracking those with science, maths and information technology skills towards a green card and loosening up H-1B visa caps.
First up was a bipartisan Bill in the Senate on Tuesday, called the Immigration Innovation Act, which proposes to increase the number of H-1B visas in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) employment areas and fund further Stem education in the US through higher visa fees charged to employers.
Noting that the US visa system was not fit for 21st-century America, Florida senator Marco Rubio told the Senate that while the US created 120,000 Stem jobs each year, only 40,000 US students graduated in those areas (an astonishingly small number given the US population). He added that every 100 foreign-born Stem workers in the US generated 260 US jobs, making visa reform “a net positive for our economy”.
Later the same day, in a wide-ranging speech in Las Vegas on immigration reform, Obama also highlighted the need for tech visa reform, mentioning immigrant-founded tech companies such as Intel, Google, Yahoo and, oddly, Instagram – perhaps in a bid to make sure the tech visa message chimed with people under 30, and those from Latin countries (its founder is Brazilian). Speaking of immigrant students attending US universities, he said: “Right now in one of those classrooms, there’s a student wrestling with how to turn their big idea, their Intel or Instagram, into a big business. We’re giving them all the skills they need to figure that out. But then we’re going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else.”
Now, that’s a curious message, isn’t it? Saying to young immigrants studying in the US that they shouldn’t contribute to the growth and economic health of their own nations, but to that of the US. If he’d added Ireland to that list as the “someplace else”, we’d all be fuming and refusing to wear our Is Féidir Linn T-shirts.
Obama also called for a start-up visa for entrepreneurs that would allow those who secure US investment or bring in US revenue, to stay in the US, grow their firm and eventually secure a green card.
Technology companies out in the Valley were quick to respond positively to the proposed visa reforms. Intel even went so far as to say it would be happy to pay the proposed 40 per cent increase in visa fees under the Immigration Innovation Act. Google noted some of the statistics that have spurred both IT and venture capital industry bodies to call for more open US immigration laws for years: 40 per cent of venture-funded, public Silicon Valley companies have had a foreign-born founder; and a fourth of tech and engineering companies in the US founded in the past six years had at least one main founder who was foreign born, with those companies supplying 560,000 jobs and creating $63 billion in sales.
Those statistics make you wonder why it has taken so long for visa reform to land as firmly on the US national agenda as it did this week. And why Obama and Congress suddenly seem to have seen the light.
The same could be said of us. For years, industry bodies as well as government-appointed strategy groups have called for urgent (urgent!) visa reform to help create more high-level jobs here, encourage research and development, and support a start-up culture that in so many nations is underpinned by immigrants.
While some moves were made here, especially in science and research funding, nothing markedly innovative happened on the visa front. Maybe boomtime economies just don’t lend themselves to that sort of strategic thinking. But that may at last be about to change. The Irish Government is also (apparently) inching closer to a new fast-track technology visa, and perhaps an entrepreneur visa too.
Our politicians might wish to cast an eye over the Atlantic to the proposals and debate there. Just remember, we sure don’t want to turn around and tell our graduates to go start that business and create those jobs in the US, do we?