Recapping “Adelante: How Immigration Drives Austin Tech”

On Wednesday evening, innovators and entrepreneurs gathered at Capital Factory to learn more about the recent shift in the immigration policy landscape and what to expect next. Here’s a quick five minute read on what you missed.

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar

Council Member Greg Casar

Hosted by Austin Tech Alliance and FWD.us, the event kicked off with Greg Casar. Casar is the son of Mexican immigrants and an Austin City Council Member representing District 4 for his second term. First elected in 2014, he is the youngest City Council Member in Austin’s history.

Casar’s district has the highest number of immigrants and non-U.S. citizens in the city, and he talked about how he has made it a priority to provide all of the district’s residents with a seat at the City Hall table. As a result, Casar and his office have been active in response to recent U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement sweeps in Austin, and he focused the majority of his remarks around the effects on Austin’s immigrant population.

Casar framed the current immigration debate as the inability of our government to recognize a basic fact: humans move. But for three decades, per Casar, the federal government has not passed immigration reform acknowledging this fact — and Austin and other communities across the country have had to deal with the consequences.

Casar spoke about the importance of engagement from the tech community from the economic perspective. “So much of [Austin’s] power comes from being considered an inclusive and diverse community — a place where people want to come because they see it as an oasis, […] a place where people of all different backgrounds can be accepted and thrive and step up to the plate,” said Casar.

Casar considers the erosion of this sentiment potentially devastating for the economic prospects of our city: “Long term, Austin prospers because people think that everyone here can prosper. I think that’s a really serious conversation that we need to have — and one that I think the tech community is particularly poised to be able to have.”

Panel discussion

Following Casar was a panel discussion regarding a number of immigration-related issues. Moderated by Brenda Salinas from 60dB, the panel featured Bjorn Billhardt, CEO of Abilitie, Celina Moreno, staff attorney with MALDEF, and Ashley Moran, Associate Director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

Bjorn Billhardt offered a unique perspective as someone who immigrated to the United States from Germany. He first came here as a high school foreign exchange student in Pflugerville before attending the University of Texas and Harvard Business School, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen in 2012.

But according to Billhardt, current immigration policies mean “my story would be impossible today.”

Billhardt called the H1-B visa “a vital part of the legal immigration system that is currently being undermined,” and he actually had an opportunity to testify recently in front of the U.S. Senate on the topic. While there, he engaged in a discussion with then-Senator (and now Attorney General) Jeff Sessions about the topic, although Bjorn admitted he was “unsuccessful in convincing him of some of my finer points on why the H1-B system is so valuable.”

Regarding Attorney General Sessions’ recent announcement of efforts to curb abuses of the H1-B, Bjorn said in theory that is a fine idea — provided there is a commensurate increase in the overall number of visas available. “Right now, it’s almost impossible for someone like a grad student who wants to put their talents to use in the United States to come here.”

Celina Moreno with MALDEF spoke about the economic impact of undocumented immigrants: in Texas, they have about $100 billion of purchasing power and pay more than $1.5 billion in state and local taxes each year. Coupled with their lower rates of crime, Moreno argued that they often become scapegoats simply for political reasons.

According to Moreno, that scapegoating takes the form of legislation like SB 4, a bill pending in the Texas Legislatlure to ban so-called sanctuary cities. She argued, though, that the impact of that type of legislation is a reduction in public safety. Often times, victims of crime who are undocumented are afraid to contact police for fear of potential deportation, leading to crimes being underreported and criminals remaining free on the streets.

Celina asked that members of the tech community who are interested in helping consider joining the TRUST Coalition. TRUST is a broad group of business, religious, and advocacy organizations — from the Texas Association of Business to the Texas NAACP — who support what they consider common sense immigration principles.

Finally, Ashley Moran with the Strauss Center spoke about her work on refugee policy and the impact it can have on national security. In Texas, nearly a quarter of new refugee arrivals in 2016 came here on special immigrant visas — meaning they assisted the U.S. military or government in Iraq or Afghanistan and now face risks due to that service.

As a result, “our refugee and immigrant community here in Texas has deep connections to our national security and foreign policy efforts abroad.”

Moran also spoke about the security vetting procedures already in place for incoming refugees, often pinpointed by some as a reason to shut down the entire refugee resettlement process : “There have been zero terrorist attacks that have been deadly that have involved refugees since the refugee resettlement program and security vetting process was formalized.” She made the argument that the facts simply don’t bear out what is typically claimed by opponents — that the process is ripe for failure and insufficiently rigorous.

She closed by reminding the crowd about the role our country has played in history: “The United States has been such a leader at so many points in history by opening doors and standing up for equal treatment and an opportunity to have a new life. That’s something we hope we can continue to stand up for.”

Full video

Want to watch the entire event? Look no further:


Austin Tech Alliance is a member-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting civic engagement in Austin’s tech sector. We focus on:

  • Educating the tech grassroots on issues that impact them
  • Advocating for tech-forward solutions to community challenges
  • Activating the tech community to speak up, participate, and vote