America is losing out on some of the world’s top talent in high-tech startups and entrepreneurs, because of a broken and backlogged immigration system.
That was the message coming out of the first panel discussion at the South by Southwest V2V event, taking place today, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas.
Panelists included U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, who said easing the way for tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to immigrate to the United States should be a top priority of the immigration reform bill now pending in Congress. “This one is probably one of the most important [votes] to our country,” Heck said after the event.
Asked why some conservatives would block immigration reform even if it would ease the way toward keeping America the global leader in high-tech innovation, Heck said a bill aimed only at tech-oriented immigrants and venture capitalists would probably pass quickly and without the opposition that has plagued the recently passed comprehensive Senate reform bill.
Heck said the “pathway to citizenship” portion of the Senate bill is the source of disagreement in his Republican caucus. (Heck himself says he supports the pathway to citizenship outlined in the Senate bill, a position that earned him kind words from panel moderator Mark Falzone, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. (The panel was sponsored by the forum’s Bibles, Badges and Business immigration reform organization, which seeks to bring more heartland Republicans into the reform effort.)
Panelists Andrew Crump, Scott Allison and Alex Torrenegra – immigrants all — shared stories of dealing with an unresponsive, expensive bureaucracy when trying to start tech businesses in the United States, still the recognized world leader when it comes to startups and venture capital.
But all three said the U.S. is losing good people — and high-paying jobs — to foreign countries that are making immigration systems easier to navigate.
Crump said he’s had to spend $50,000 on flights, immigration lawyers and application fees for himself and fellow employees of his start-up, spending the first three months working on immigration issues alone. “It’s not been a fun process,” he said. Part of the problem is that there are no immigration visa programs specifically for entrepreneurs.
Allison, who was drawn to Las Vegas by the Downtown Project and the Vegas Tech Fund, said he could start a business in America, but couldn’t legally work for it. The “startup ecosystem” found in Las Vegas — marrying pockets of high-tech innovation and venture capital — is being replicated in other countries where the immigration barriers are not so high, Allison said.
Torrenegra was born in Colombia, and worked fast-food jobs in America while pursuing his tech dreams, said he started a company at the same time he was being told he needed to return to Colombia. He ended up marrying a United States citizen and staying. But he says immigration rules recently led him to hire five people based in South America, jobs that otherwise would have come to the United States.
Heck agreed that the immigration system doesn’t reflect the country’s current economic needs, noting Israel and India were top competitors to the United States when it comes to high technology jobs and innovation. “If we don’t let them create it here in the United States, they’ll create it somewhere else,” he said.
Heck also defended himself from Democratic criticism over a recent vote to deny funding to President Barack Obama‘s administration for an executive order that allows the children of illegal immigrants to avoid deportation if they pursue an education or military service. Heck said Obama’s order — which mirrors the DREAM Act that failed to pass in the Senate in 2010 — exceeded the president’s authority.
“It was political pandering three months before the  election,” Heck said.