Miriam-Sitz

It’s a fact: Highly educated, tech-savvy immigrants are vital to the nation’s entrepreneurial economy. Yet many who come to U.S. colleges and universities to hone their skills find themselves unable to stay after graduation because of outdated immigration laws.

The face of innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States is clearly changing, making skilled foreign workers more important than ever to an economy that suffers from a lack of high tech talent. That’s backed up by a growing body of research generated by bipartisan sources, including the Partnership for a New American Society, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Yet highly skilled, non-native workers, particularly in specialized  STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, face multiple barriers to remaining in or even entering the country. Many find themselves on the wrong side of a visa quota system that prevents U.S. job creation from reaching a supply and demand equilibrium.

The golden ticket? An H-1B visa, intended “to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields,” in the words of the US Citizenship and Immigration services webpage.

Since 2006, the number of available H-1B visas has been capped at 85,000. The application season for 2014 H-1B visa petitions began on April 1, 2013, and within five days, the cap was met. That leaves growing companies, like Rackspace and USAA, unable to fill jobs by tapping foreign talent.

With demand far exceeding supply, more and more business groups are  clamoring for revision of the program. While the U.S. Congress has struggled to reach a compromise on several recently introduced immigration reform bills, others have taken the matter into their own hands.

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Individuals across the country are making their opinions heard by joining the March for Innovation to Washington, a virtual procession that begins today.

The goal is to call on members of the U.S. Senate via social media and spurs elected officials to move swiftly toward enactment of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that addresses the disconnect between current immigration law and a fast-changing U.S. economy.

This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a sweeping new reform bill that will go to the full Senate in June. Here is the New York Times coverage of the proposed legislation, which would raise the number of H-1B visas to 115,000 annually.

The “iMarch” was organized by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group of business leaders aiming to fuel American innovation and job creation through immigration and visa policy reform.

Peter French
Peter French

One like-minded advocate is San Antonio’s own Peter French. A social entrepreneur with diverse experience in real estate development, placemaking, and problem solving, French founded FreeFlow Research last October. (Keep up with FreeFlow Research on Facebook and Twitter.)

The mission of this Geekdom-based applied research organization is to establish San Antonio as the U.S. center of global entrepreneurship by removing barriers for international entrepreneurs and innovators to anchor their businesses in the city. Not subject to the visa cap or annual application cycle dates, FreeFlow Research is awaiting certification as a 501(c)(3) organization. When all the pieces come together, the organization will be able to sponsor cap-exempt H-1B visas for qualified workers year-round.

If French’s plan works, he will be able to supply employers such as Rackspace and USAA with skilled contract foreign-born workers that visa limitations would prevent the companies from hiring directly.

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FreeFlow Research has begun to establish partnerships with universities and major employers in San Antonio. French anticipates fulfilling their time-sensitive employee requirements by recruiting a pool of skilled workers whose skill sets meet specific needs. FreeFlow Research would hire the specialized foreign-born workers and sponsor their H-1B visa applications.

The visa could keep non-native workers in San Antonio for up to six years, buying time for the contract employer or another company to hire the individual on a full-time basis.

As the website indicates, FreeFlow Research will “extend the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period for foreign STEM graduates, and provide our members with immigration support, skills assessments, stipends, [and] entrepreneurship resources.”

FreeFlow Research plans to connect with university students and help them get on track for internships, apprenticeships, and possibly, research projects with local for-profit companies. By leveraging existing resources like the OPT period (which can allow for as long as 29 months of work under a student visa) with FreeFlow Research-sponsored H-1B visas, French anticipates helping young, foreign-born workers remain in San Antonio for nearly 10 years, ample time to secure a full-time job with an employer that would sponsor the individual’s “green card” application for permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship.

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French pointed to ParLevel Systems as a shining example of the kind of international entrepreneur business that San Antonio should fight to support. The company includes graduates of Trinity University (Walter Teele), UTSA (Jeremy Zunker, Luis P. Gonzalez-Cuatro Cienegas), Mexico-Instituto Tecnologico de Estudios Superiores de Occidente or ITESO (Alfonso Garcia-Guadalajara), and Monterrey Tech (Rafael Barroso), all of whom are working here under student visas.

“Geekdom is the place where everything started,” said ParLevel CEO Luis Gonzalez. Most recently, the company was selected to participate in the TechStars Cloud program, a highly selective tech business incubator that culminates in a day of business pitches to a theater packed with angel investors and venture capitalists looking for promising new business ventures.

“These guys (ParLevel) are poster children for the kind of the people we want here,” asserted French. “The fact that there would be any problem with them staying and keeping that company in San Antonio does not make sense to me on any level.”

ParLevel Systems Left to right: Jeremy Zunker, Alfonso Garcia-Guadalajara, Rafael Barroso, Walter Teele, Luis P. Gonzalez-Cuatro Cienegas
ParLevel Systems (left to right: Jeremy Zunker, Alfonso Garcia-Guadalajara, Rafael Barroso, Walter Teele, Luis P. Gonzalez-Cuatro Cienegas)

fact sheet from MarchforInnovation.com neatly summarizes a few compelling statistics about immigrants and entrepreneurship (and this infographic describes H-1B candidates). Immigrants or their children founded more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies. In 2011 alone, 28% of all companies started in the United States boasted immigrant founders, as the report Open for Business shows. In 2012, CNN reported that immigrants are more than twice as likely as the native-born to start a business.

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Though some criticize the H-1B program for allegedly siphoning jobs away from native-born workers in favor of their foreign counterparts, research disproves that misconception. A May 2012 report (“Not Coming to America: Why the US is Falling Behind in the Global Race for Talent”) concluded that based on current trends, some 800,000 STEM field jobs will require workers with master’s degrees or higher by 2018, but only around 550,000 U.S.-born workers will have the necessary credentials.

“That a company like Rackspace cannot hire who they need to hire,” said French, emphatically, “we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. I find it un-American to not want the best and brightest to be here.”

Last spring, French wrote a piece for the Rivard Report presenting his idea for a program called Change Agents in Residence. Prompted by the citywide SA2020 initiative, French proposed that a concerted effort be made to identify individuals or programs effective at fixing community problems, bring them to San Antonio, and employ them to develop their solutions to myriad challenges confronting the city.

Rackspace Chairman Graham Weston
Graham Weston

A serendipitous meeting with Rackspace chairman and co-founder Graham Weston shortly after that article posted catalyzed a conversation about one particular problem facing San Antonio: attracting and retain top talent, and particularly international talent within the tech sphere. That spark of an idea resonated with French, who then set out to learn all he could about immigration and visas. Naturally, the H-1B visa, with all its benefits but also with its supply and demand problems, emerged as the best solution to solve this challenge, and FreeFlow Research was born.

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Reflecting upon the past year spent bringing FreeFlow Research to fruition, French summarized his feelings toward the fledgling organization’s mission. “What I found so compelling about this whole concept at the beginning,” he explained, “was the fact that people want to stay and contribute here. That is the American dream.”

Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]

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Miriam Sitz

Miriam Sitz is a Texpat and former San Antonian living in New York City. She was one of the first regular Rivard Report contributors, writing for the site from 2012 to 2014, and now works as an editor...