Nearly a quarter of Texas business owners are foreign born. These entrepreneurs brought in a total income of $10 billion dollars in 2010. Still, immigration is a sticking point, and some Texas entrepreneurs are pushing for more high-skilled visas.
Famed futurist and physicist Michio Kaku has said that America has a secret weapon.
“That secret weapon is the H-1B,” Kaku said, “Without the H-1B the scientific establishment of this country would collapse! Forget about Google. Forget about Silicon Valley, there would be no Silicon Valley without the H-1B.”
So what exactly are H-1B visas? They’re visas for highly-skilled, foreign born workers. And they’re hard to get. Companies looking for these employees snatch them up fast – in October, it took less than a week for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to hit the cap of 65,000 for 2015.
“It’s a talent war,” says Shams Juma. He’s CEO of a Dallas business consulting startup called Quantifye.
“It’s very difficult for us to find good talent, and in house.”
Juma shared his struggle with a group of startup enthusiasts a few weeks ago at an event put on by local startup group LaunchDFW and the national lobby group FWD.us. FWD.us has been called the Zuckerberg PAC, for its Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
Not everyone searching for an H-1B visa wants to work in IT for Google, Facebook, or a consulting firm. Adrian Avendano wants to work at his own company, but it’s not that easy.
Tricky Transition From School To Startup
Avendano moved here from Mexico six years ago to finish his Ph.D. While at the University of Texas at Dallas, he founded Ares Materials, a company to fabricate electronics on flexible materials. Since Avendano’s on an F-1 student visa, he’s not allowed to work.
“I think it’s kind of backwards,” he says, “Because there’s people who come here, six, ten years to pursue their grad school, that U.S. and taxpayer dollars funded to prepare, and then when they’re done, immigration law sends them back home.”
Avendano says he wants to contribute to the economy, and feels stuck because he can’t find an H1-B visa. In September, he’ll apply for an OPT (Optional Practical Training), which would give him 12 months to look for a job and work in the U.S.
Pia Orrenius says it’s the dream of many foreign students to stay here and find work in high tech.
“But since the private sector runs out,” she says, “these are very hard visas to get.”
Orrenius is Senior Economist and Vice President at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and a Fellow in the Tower Center for Political Studies at SMU. She says North Texas is in serious need of more H1-B visa workers.
“We’re growing at a blistering pace,” she says, “We are a poster child for an economy with labor shortages so we are bringing in lots of migrants not only from other states but also from out of the country.”
Opposition And Limited Options
Opposition to H1-B visas generally comes from workers in the U.S. who say the visas allow companies to import cheaper, younger competition. And the biggest employer of foreign tech workers aren’t startups, they’re consulting firms.
In an interview with NPR, Ron Hira called them “offshore-outsourcing firms.” Hira, author of Outsourcing America and associate professor at Howard University, says companies use H1-B visas to “bring in on-site workers who are cheaper on the H-1B and undercut American workers right here.”
And there’s another problem with the visas – H1-B visas don’t allow entrepreneurs to work for themselves, they have to be sponsored by an employer. Which is why some in the startup community are pushing for something called the Startup Visa.
“In principal the idea is a good one,” Hira says. “I mean we want to encourage innovation and startups and so on, I think the devil is in the details.”
Hira says a visa for people who have raised money from American investors is worth considering, but worries founders could become reliant on investors to stay in the country.
“I don’t think things have been vetted very well in the public discussion. There really haven’t been careful analyses of what the impacts of the startup visa would be either by think tanks or through congressional hearings.”
Conversations like the one at the Dallas Entrepreneur Center are a good start, even if they’re frustrating. Immigration reform is slow, and many entrepreneurs here are anxious to start working in the growing North Texas tech community.