Karlin Lillington: Migration laws key for entrepreneurialism

The new order in the US opens up various possibilities for business owners

The part of Obama’s plan of greatest interest to Silicon Valley is the overhaul of the H1B work visa programme and the potential for an entrepreneur’s visa. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

The part of Obama’s plan of greatest interest to Silicon Valley is the overhaul of the H1B work visa programme and the potential for an entrepreneur’s visa. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

 

In Ireland as well as the US, most of the talk and attention around president Barack Obama’s surprise move to legislate directly on the festering issue of immigration has been directed at the part that gives recognition to illegal immigrants.

But the part that is of greatest interest to Silicon Valley is Obama’s planned overhaul of the H1B work visa programme and the potential for an entrepreneur’s visa.

While it didn’t deliver on all of the topline issues campaigned for by bipartisan groups and technology industry lobbies, the order will improve significantly the conditions attached to H1B visas for workers and spouses.

The H1B programme has been criticised for inducing a form of indentured servitude for workers, who are unable to move from the job for which they were hired.

Spouses – usually women – of H1B workers have had fewer rights than women in Saudi Arabia, noted US academic and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa, who has campaigned for immigration change.

Severe restrictions

Yet immigrant founders have been net contributors to the US economy – more than 52 per cent of Silicon Valley companies in a 2007 survey by Wadhwa had first-generation immigrant founders.

The new executive order opens up various possibilities for entrepreneurs. They might come in on special visa waivers given in the past to athletes and models. Or the US might architect a special entrepreneur’s visa (as Ireland has done). The caveat is, these still only remain US policy options and have not been realised.

These changes have had support from both Democrats and Republicans for years. But proposed changes have always been ensnared in bitter wrangles over illegal immigrants. In the US, that is shorthand for the Hispanic immigrants that have flowed over the southern borders of the US for decades.

Irish immigrants have not really figured much in that larger debate, except as a niche lobby topic, useful for Irish-American politicians. Coverage in Ireland primarily focuses on those 50,000 “undocumented” Irish, underlining how much Irish thinking remains stuck in the past. The more significant, concerning flow these days is of well-qualified H1B workers and entrepreneurs out of Ireland, without any inducement eventually to return.

I do agree that the illegal US Irish should be given amnesty at this point. Though it’s a bit rich to go illegally to the US and then complain that you can’t get home without giving up your illegal status, when the Irish have long had the whole of the EU for lawful emigration.

Worse than that, every Irish government in the past two decades has been hypocritical beyond belief on the illegal Irish immigrant issue. While advocating for special consideration of these unlawful US arrivals, successive Irish governments have happily deported illegal workers and kept asylum seekers in holding facilities, unable to work, pursue higher education, or have a reasonable quality of life.

And, the Irish state has only slowly and in piecemeal fashion relaxed previously tight restrictions on the Irish equivalent of H1Bs. There’s been, at last, some movement on allowing foreign postgrads to remain in Ireland to set up companies, and an entrepreneur’s visa has been introduced (though with little take-up so far).

Multinational targets

Overall, I think it’s a good thing for Irish workers to emigrate, expand their abilities and gain international experience.

But Irish policy makers will want to pay close attention to the US immigration debate. First, they need to resolve the disgraceful limbo imposed on asylum seekers here. And, the Government must remember Ireland competes for the same global market of skilled workers and entrepreneurs.

Finally, the country will suffer if it cannot provide an attractive entrepreneurial and employment landscape to its own citizens. It will permanently lose them to the countries that do.

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