Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lofgren Introducing Bill To Revamp Immigration For Entrepreneurs & Skilled Workers

One of the more controversial subjects we've discussed over the years is immigration & visa policy when it comes to skilled foreign workers. At this point, there's more than enough evidence to support two key points: that a skilled immigration & visa program done well creates economic growth and jobs within the country (as opposed to pushing those folks to other countries where they create growth and jobs away from the US) and that the current skilled visa system is massively abused. This often makes it difficult to have serious discussion on the topic, because every time we talk about the importance of getting a program that works well and doesn't send skilled workers away from the US, opponents of the system focus solely on the abuses of the program. However, if you can separate the two issues out and recognize that immigration is not a zero sum game (i.e., a foreign worker doesn't necessarily mean one fewer job for an American worker), then you can start to look at creating a better program for skilled workers.

It looks like Rep. Zoe Lofgren is trying to do exactly that, with a new bill (which again, has a terrible acronym): the Immigration Driving Entrepreneurship in America... or IDEA Act. On the face of it, the bill seems to hit on a few key points that we've discussed in the past. It focuses on getting immigrants with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) green cards, and making it easier for students in those areas to get visas. This has been a huge issue, where top notch students and skilled workers were often forced to go back home, rather than create jobs and growth in the US.

Also, embedded in all of this appears to be a version of the startup visa, that we've discussed for many years. I still have significant concerns about the specific implementation of a startup visa, and the fact that it still relies on venture capitalists as the gatekeeper. That is, a foreign entrepreneur needs to secure money from a venture capitalist to get the visa. I think this relies way too heavily on the venture capital system, which (contrary to what some VCs believe) is not necessary to build a successful startup. It also could put the entrepreneurs in a tricky position where they need a venture capitalist's support not for monetary reasons, but for immigration reasons, and that opens up the system for abuse. However, the overall concept of granting visas to entrepreneurs is good, and hopefully the specific details will help get around these concerns within the bill.

Importantly, the bill also does not pretend that the current H-1b and L-visa programs are free from abuse. Instead, it tries to reform both of those programs to stop the widespread abuse, wherein those visas too often are used as a way to sneak in cheap labor, rather than for their actual intended purposes of keeping significantly skilled labor here.

Finally, the program appears to try to use the money from these new visas to invest in scholarship programs in those important STEM areas, which seems like a good way to invest back into education for future workers.

There are some devils in the details, but it's nice to see a comprehensive attempt to take on a few of these issues that really are impacting US innovation and economic growth.

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