Tech Companies Eagerly Eyeing Immigration Reform

More visas for STEM workers a potential boon for New York City
By Kristen Meriwether, Epoch Times
April 18, 2013 Updated: April 19, 2013

NEW YORK—Immigration reform heads to the Hill in Washington, D.C., this week and an unlikely group is looking forward to the reforms—tech companies.

New York City is experiencing a tech boom, with companies like Google, Kickstarter, and Tumblr all headquartered or invested here. The number of smaller tech companies looking to make their mark in what has been dubbed “Silicon Alley” currently sits at nearly 1,000 and it is growing rapidly.

The biggest issue for this booming industry is not space, or even bandwidth—it’s finding highly educated engineers and developers to write the code.

“There is a huge need for developers,” said Dawn Barber, founder of NY TechMeetup, a nonprofit with 31,000 members supporting the technology community. “The companies are growing. There are a lot of startups and ideas all the time, but you need developers to actually make the product and build the ideas.”

On Wednesday, a website that aggregates publicly posted listings for information technology (IT) jobs showed 1,454 developer jobs open in New York City out of 19,889 in the United States. San Francisco showed 502 openings.

The current immigration policy, not reformed since 1986, puts heavy focus on family reunification, and less on employer sponsored green cards, something needed much more in today’s knowledge economy. Pieces of the new immigration bill, officially introduced by the “Gang of Eight,” bipartisan politicians to the United States Senate, on Wednesday, will address getting qualified candidates into the workforce.

“We think the bill reorients the immigration system in a way that can serve our national interests by increasing our access to the world’s talented people,” said Robert Hoffman, senior vice president of government affairs at Information Technology Industry Council.

Much of the immigration bill centers on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees, which are required for developers and engineers in these in-demand fields.

“There is a shortage of STEM educated people in the U.S. at this point and the projections are that shortage will grow,” said Erik Grimmelmann, executive director of New York Technology Council.

There are plenty of U.S. institutions offering degree programs in STEM fields, including Columbia and NYU locally. Students come in on student visas to attend school, however, once they graduate, using their new skills at a U.S. company is not so easy.

“It makes no sense at all to not allow recent grads with advance degrees to stay in the U.S. and instead force them to return to the country they came from,” Grimmelmann said.

If offered a job, graduates can secure an H1B visa, which is meant to be a temporary visa while immigrants wait for a green card. The H1B visas are employer-sponsored, meaning the employer pays for a portion, with costs in the thousands for application and lawyer fees.

These visas have a number of restrictions, which, if changed, need to be documented and may change an immigrant’s status, including transferring jobs, and promotions. Hoffman said it inhibits professional development.

These temporary visas have become long-term visas as the backlog of visa applications continues to grow, particularly in India and China—where much of the tech talent is coming from. The current immigration laws allow no more than 7 percent of visas per nationality to be issued each year.

For Indian born immigrants hoping to catch the next wave of the tech boom, the wait is almost nine years just to start the process, as the U.S. State Department is currently processing applications submitted in September 2004, according to an April bulletin.

“In the knowledge economy, 2004 is an eternity.” Hoffman said.

For Hire
For tech companies desperate to hire qualified workers, the process is just as frustrating as it is for the workers.

“It’s about talent,” Jon Gettinger, senior VP of marketing at Aria Systems, Inc., a San Francisco-based tech company, said. “It shouldn’t matter where the person is from, I should be able to hire them.”

Gettinger said his company does not deal with foreign-born hires yet, however, as they grow, he is leery of going down that road because of all the red tape associated with the process.

“With quality developers in such high demand and so many tech companies being started, it definitely takes a lot of work to find and recruit the right people to join your company,” Eric Ma, lead engineer at Skillshare, a New York-based tech company said by email Wednesday.

Skipping the Line
The new bill will exempt numerical limits on masters and doctoral STEM degrees, pushing those grads to the front of the line, avoiding the inconvenience of hanging on to an H1B for a decade.

“If they [immigrant] gets a masters or PhD from NYU or Columbia, for example, they can basically have a green card stapled to their job offer letter,” Hoffman said.

Applicants must still go through the immigration process, but the wait time is months instead of years.

“I think these laws would absolutely help our business as we continue to grow. Anything that makes it easier for talented engineers to work in the U.S. can only help the entire industry,” said Ma.

The bill, officially called the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, is in the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the bill makes it out of the committee, it will need 60 votes to be approved in the Senate before being sent on to the House of Representatives for approval.

Genevieve Belmaker contributed to this report.