The heartbeat of Silicon Valley that no one listens to
The end of March is a particularly exciting time of a year in Silicon Valley for several reasons. One of them being that Easter break is fast approaching, and another being that the next wave of early stage companies graduate from YC. Last week, plenty of startups showed off their awe-inspiring products with promising revenue streams at the Class of Winter 2016 Demo day. At the same time, the Valley quietly starts talking about the next wave of aspiring entrepreneurs who are scrambling to pull their YC apps together yet hopeful to be selected as the chosen few for the next Class.
I wish I could share more of this sense of excitement and adventure surrounding the pursuit and validation of various business ideas around me. I was recently inspired by a good friend I met here who decided, to my surprise, to leave a relatively safe Series-B startup for a two person seed-stage company.
I wish I could do the same.
Unfortunately, the harsh reality for immigrants seeking opportunities in the US is that their opportunities are not as plentiful, although this fact is generally mirrored across continents. As more people join the ranks of practicing entrepreneurs in San Francisco, all the foreign-born workers are scrambling to put together an H1B visa application with their lawyers. Yes, you heard that right — the scary and intimidating H1B visa. Its hatred is well-known among many, be it foreigners, students, employers, or politicians. For the next month, 250,000 people will be wondering whether they can stay here legally beyond the end of summer. Only about a third of them will be permitted to stay here longer, in hopes of developing their professional skills in the land of opportunity that is the US.
Seeing how much coverage immigration gets in the media, one would actually be surprised to find out that the visa selection process is a random lottery. Yes, you heard that right. It does not take anything into account including the state of the economy, its current needs, or skills brought by foreigners. The random lottery process allows the system to be easily gamed by simply flooding it with a number of strikingly similar applications, decreasing the chances of those companies that really need the sought-after talent.
“Talent knows no borders”
Believe it or not, the situation across the pond is not much better, even though I experienced it as a half-insider (a EU citizen in the UK). Throughout the 4 years of my life spent at the University of Cambridge, I met a lot of very smart and highly motivated people across different subjects. We were all in this together until the day of Graduation came, blowing apart the hopes and dreams of many brilliant students.
Many Europeans do not know that people from outside EU are the biggest losers of the anti-immigration campaigns across the UK. They are not the ones whose rights are defended by activist groups or politicians in the European Parliament. They are not the ones whose migration cannot be limited without breaking any of the EU treaties. They are the ones, however, who are quietly on the receiving end of bad policies publicly targeted at EU migrants such as Poles who came to the UK in very large numbers. Being a European citizen, I detest how unwelcoming we are to non-EU immigrants after seeing college friends sent off to their home countries because promising startups could not sponsor their visas. On the other hand, those who really wanted to stay were forced to join the corporate ranks in the City of London by becoming consultants or analysts.
In the wake of the Brussels attacks, one must be thinking I am crazy to advocate for the rights of immigrants at the time when Europe is leaning more and more towards the right. I actually support taking in more refugees from Syria and trying to assimilate them, (yes you heard that right again) as aging Europe needs them or it risks becoming irrelevant in the globalized world. But this is a topic for yet another story. In general, I believe that immigrants bring a lot of positive things to the table and help the economy flourish. Studies have actually shown that, although hated by the British public for the apparent abuse of the social benefits system, Poles have had a net positive impact for the British economy. When UKIP became popular (through the xenophobia and insecurity of many), I read many opinions that Poles were stealing jobs from the locals by accepting much lower salaries. The truth is, however, that Poles actually filled an undesirable void for the British, i.e often taking the least comfortable jobs of cleaning or bartending.
A strikingly similar situation happens in Poland, although again not many people would like to admit that. However, this time our Eastern neighbors take our equivalent spots in Western Europe by working the same jobs which, surprisingly given the previous discussion, Poles do not want in the cleaning or summer harvesting industries. A similar trend can be found again when we look at the US. Last summer, WSJ reported that US farming industry collected fewer crops this past season due to a shortage of seasonal workers, partly attributed to tightened security around the Mexican border allowing fewer illegal immigrants.
For my whole life, I have been taught that America is a country built by immigrants seeking a better life and a land of opportunity to the West. These days it is hard to find an American who does not have any immigrant roots, even though they may be buried behind a wall of several generations. Yet, the media and society in general chooses to ignore these roots, by assuming that everyone has been assimilated as Americans on the whole and every immigrant is simply foreign despite obvious similarities offset by a few hundred years.
Silicon Valley actually provides many role models who stand as positive examples of how foreigners may help the overall economy. Immigrants who come here usually have to prove their worth and work harder to be considered as equals to Americans. Elon Musk is a great example of a South African entrepreneur who is trying to change the state of US economy by bringing highly skilled jobs back to the US through driving innovation at many of his companies like Tesla and SpaceX. Even though he stands out, there are many more inconspicuous or less famous people like him who push the US economy forward through their work every day, making the next Apples, Googles and Facebooks what they are.
The US has a long record of attracting foreign talent and is going to continue to do so for the next couple of years as its economy remains very appealing to people from all over the world who are trying to alter their lives for the better. Is it not better to allow this large talent pool to flourish here improving American products, building great companies, and creating even more jobs rather than let them go elsewhere and compete with US businesses? It goes without saying that a highly skilled worker is more likely to make a net positive impact and possibly even start his own business hiring people and paying taxes. I would argue that the current system benefits those who game it rather than the US economy. Businesses, especially in the Silicon Valley, are struggling to hire people needed for growth. Skilled workers are going elsewhere to add value as their international mobility is higher than that of a low skilled worker. Foreign born students have to go back to their home countries despite years of US-based training. I understand that immigration is a highly controversial topic, but it would benefit the US if a random lottery was replaced with, say, a points based selection process, and a cap was dynamically allocated each year. This would allow the government officials to weigh the importance of different factors and allow for a needs-based approval process depending on the job market situation. Although it is not the only problem highly skilled foreigners face in this country, it would be a good first step to normalize their situation before addressing other issues like giving work permits to their spouses.
I may sound harsh and bitter, but are there many things worse for a young person than to have his dreams brutally crushed by merciless bureaucracy? Sure, death, tragic loss, and health issues are some, but these are artifacts of our biological limitations? The jarring reality is that many young people are impeded in their journey to achieve their aspirations, but I hope that one day the world becomes an easier place for people to chase their dreams across different borders and continents.