Immigration policies and the new susceptibility of US tech dominance

Arben Kane
6 min readAug 22, 2017

The recent debacle on the news about immigration has me thinking about America’s fascination with the cult of the hero who triumphs against all odds. This kind of mythical folklore is what panders to our competitive capitalist society to uphold the “survival of the fittest” business practices. It is an inspiring and uplifting myth but doesn’t tell the whole story. What is missing is the part of the story that illustrates the inevitable hardships, failures, and persistence one must endure in order to “make it.”

What does it really take in order to cash in on the promise of the American dream? Looking back on my own trajectory, I recognize that I needed a degree of hardship in order to grow and that my failures made room for fresh hunger for new ideas and innovation. I first immigrated with my family from Kosovo to Germany at age 5, then from Germany to the US as a 25-year-old adult. From my point of view, immigration doesn’t get easier, no matter how old you are, it’s always difficult. There is an aspect to immigration that demands a painful sacrifice of an earlier version of the self to make room for a new version. This is no easy task.

It seems recently, the America has begun to attack the very hand that feeds its growth and numbed itself of the hunger for innovation. Three questions arise in my mind:

Why is America turning its back on the very source of its growth?
How are we becoming desensitized to desire and innovation?
What do we lose in choosing security over risk?

America has built its fortunes on the backs of foreigners. The recent shift in the stance toward immigration is a not a new occurrence. Two maxims I like to apply in my life are:

  1. The best way to predict the future is to study the past
  2. The second best way to predict the future is to invent it

## The Past:

“The United States experienced major waves of immigration during the colonial era, the first part of the 19th century and from the 1880s to 1920. Many immigrants came to America seeking greater economic opportunity, while some, such as the Pilgrims in the early 1600s, arrived in search of religious freedom. From the 17th to 19th centuries, hundreds of thousands of African slaves came to America against their will. The first significant federal legislation restricting immigration was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Individual states regulated immigration prior to the 1892 opening of Ellis Island, the country’s first federal immigration station. New laws in 1965 ended the quota system that favored European immigrants, and today, the majority of the country’s immigrants hail from Asia and Latin America.”

“The influx of newcomers resulted in anti-immigrant sentiment among certain factions of America’s native-born, predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant population. The new arrivals were often seen as unwanted competition for jobs, while many Catholics-especially the Irish-experienced discrimination for their religious beliefs. In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party (also called the Know-Nothings) tried to severely curb immigration, and even ran a candidate, former U.S. president Millard Fillmore (1800–1874), in the presidential election of 1956.”

More History on the US immigration before 1965

## The Present:

Silicon Valley has a long been the dominating player in the competitive, global tech worker recruitment game.

The undisputed epicenter of funding and community — with adjacency to leading companies offering a never-ending supply of talent, information and additive technology — it rarely feels the competitive pressure at work in other major markets.

To a lesser degree, this is true in Seattle, the Bay Area, and New York. An insatiable demand for skilled technology workers and attractive cosmopolitan trappings are drawing hordes of young software developer, programmers, data scientists to these hives of innovation.

Now, with President Trump, the honeymoon may be over.

His warped manifestation of an “America First” message has the current administration scrutinizing immigration policies, including examination of the H1B visa policy and the Startup Visa as well.

The competitive advantage these cities enjoyed is in jeopardy. And foreign countries are ready to capitalize.

Historically second-tier markets now sense a chance to establish or grow their own tech scenes. While policies affecting the foreign-born tech workers hang in the balance, the situation poses a welcomed opportunity for the nascent tech hubs around the world.

### Other countries smell the opportunity.

They sense the loosening of the competitive stranglehold as workers and executive leadership reconsider about where to work, invest and build operations.

They are ready with compelling offers to gain footing and redirect the flows of talent and funding away from Silicon Valley.

By 2019, it is estimated there will be 182,000 job openings in tech in Canada. And literally, no Canadians to fill them. An increasingly vibrant technology sector is starved for talent, giving rise to coordinated private and public partnerships like Go North Canada. The initiative is a direct attempt to lure Silicon Valley and US-based Canadian nationals back home.

A Canadian friend of mine just recently let me know that in 2017 Canada received over 800 applications from California ventures to pursue their relocation.

Layer in policy uncertainty, aggressive recruitment strategies and the competitive strangle hold of US companies on tech talent is loosened.

## For the United States, The timing couldn’t be worse.

Globally, the information arms race has reached fever pitch. Leadership in innovation and the economic contribution of dominant tech names and the ecosystems that have nurtured them now hang in the balance.

These hubs are responsible for the US’ resilience in technology sector leadership. And this leadership contributes at scale to national GDP, productivity, marketable IP, capital accumulation and new business growth.

Effectively all the US’ engines of growth. So goes our workforce, so goes our competitiveness.

### What’s more American than opportunity and freedom?

Beyond the economic boon for the United States, inclusive policies further the message of opportunity and freedom. These are the tenets of democracy and central to America’s agenda to combat authoritarian, socialist and oppressive political establishments around the world.

What better way to convert a global audience than to give its international constituents a taste of what democracy allows?

This is the spirit of the International Entrepreneur Rule. Dubbed the “startup visa”, this legislation was part of President Obama’s bipartisan immigration bill passed in 2013 — and aimed at foreign-born entrepreneurs with high-potential startups and investment from qualified American investors.

Of course, US interests aren’t lost on the former president: studies suggest that up to 40% of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or children of immigrants. As the White House notes, if fully implemented, the rule could boost the nation’s economic output by up to $250 billion, while shrinking the federal deficit by $65 billion over the next ten years.

Virtually all of the U.S. labor force expansion over the next 40 years is projected to come from immigrants and their children. So it is essential for the health of the U.S. economy that they are well positioned to fill skilled jobs.

If the US wanted to make a bold bet, it would change course. Instead of stymieing foreign recruitment, it could embrace it.

The fear-mongering around foreign workers displacing US-born workers is a fable wrought with political undertones. Effective inclusion of foreign born talent spurs economic activity, expansion, and innovation. This widens the ecosystem and effectively advances inclusion.

Inclusion breeds expansion, which drives more opportunity and inclusion.

### Advancement: no zero-sum game.

Forbes had it right when it reported that the US immigration system almost killed Instagram.

Cofounder Mike Krieger, growing frustrated with the visa process, nearly returned to Brazil after his Stanford graduation. Fortunately he persevered and went on to co-found Instagram. After its $1 billion sale to Facebook he started Unshackled, an early-stage venture fund and mentorship program delivering market-based solution to the visa challenge facing many foreign-born entrepreneurs: In exchange for equity, his firm not only provides cash but also acts as an employer and visa sponsor for founders.

Kevin gets it.

And his sentiments reflect what inclusive, forward-thinking immigration policies look like:

“While our national dialogue around immigrants deteriorates, Unshackled’s model showcases the kinds of conversations that we ought to be having — conversations about removing impediments to opportunity, investing in extraordinary intellectual capital and spurring innovations that will benefit all of us.”



Arben Kane

Entrepreneur, tech visionary & startup shrink. An arbiter in the world of technology and a relentless challenger against the limitations of the human condition.