A recent bipartisan poll of 1,000 U.S. voters showed that 77 percent want to see some sort of immigration reform. They may finally get their wish--for better or worse. Wednesday, a bipartisan collective known as the Gang of Eight revealed the latest take on immigration reform--an 844-page bill that includes provisions on a range of initiatives, including new border security measures and start-up visa reform.
The proposed bill also contains new (and much-needed) policies aimed at attracting foreign-born skilled workers to come to the United States--and allowing them to stay if they've started a successful business. It's about time: According to a recent Kauffman study, the proportion of immigrant-founded companies across the country has fallen about 4 percent in the past seven years. In Silicon Valley, that proportion has fallen 16 percent.
These aren't just cold statistics, either. Readers of Inc.com might remember the very personal story of Asaf Darash, the Israeli-born founder of Regpack, who was forced to leave the country--literally amidst threats of deportation--because he couldn't secure an H1-B visa. Regpack, based in San Francisco, raised $1.5 million in capital and has 19 American-born full-time employees.
"Politicians have to recognize it's not a zero-sum game," says Wendy Padilla Madden, an immigration lawyer and entrepreneur in Alabama. "Foreign nationals are much more entrepreneurial. We need to make it easier for them to stay."
Still, some are arguing the bill doesn't do enough. Some call it timid. Others are saying it's weak. It may take months for the proposed legislation to land on President Obama's desk. In the meantime, here's what you need to know about what the bill would do.
Increase the number of H1-B visas for highly skilled workers. Perhaps the most salient point in the bill for entrepreneurs is the proposal to increase the number of H1-B visas to 110,000, from 65,000. The bill also clarifies that eventually Congress may raise the number of H1-B visas to 180,000, but the yearly change in allotment will be restricted to 10,000 visas. This is a big boon to tech companies, many of which depend on skilled foreign-born workers. Facebook, in fact, sent a lobbying team to Washington to make sure its interests were protected. Under current law, a company whose work force is more than 15 percent H1-B workers is subject to extra regulations. According to sources who spoke to The Washington Post, Facebook's lobbyists were able to include measures that would allow Facebook to "sidestep proposed rules that would force it to pay much higher wages to many foreign workers."
Allow more foreign-born entrepreneurs to stay--but with big qualifiers. The bill proposes a new program, called the INVEST nonimmigrant visa, that will allow 10,000 qualified company founders and investors to stay in the States. However, there are strict rules on who, exactly, would qualify. The entrepreneur must have created a total of five jobs, lived in the United States for two years, raised at least $500,000 in capital, and earned at least $750,000 in revenue.
Enact merit-based immigrant visas. The merit-based system is essentially a point system whereby an immigrant is granted points based on a variety of factors, including level of education and the current demand for employment. Even English-language skills are a factor. The bill creates 120,000 merit-based visas.
Expand the E-Verify system for employers. Created back in 1997, the E-Verify system was built to enable employers to check a potential employee's immigration status with federal government records. The immigration bill proposed by the Gang of Eight will expand e-verification and require employers use the system to enter new-employee information into the database.
Create W visa program for low-skilled workers. This new class of visa will allow U.S.-based businesses to keep foreign-born workers who don't necessarily have the skills that would qualify them for an H1-B or other similar visas. Starting in 2015, the new program would allow 20,000 "low-skilled" foreign workers. This would expand the H-2B visa programs, which currently allow for about 66,000 nonagricultural seasonal workers.