Seattle Times staff columnist
Russian businessman Denis Kiselev was the subject of an Aug. 30 story in The Times for a milestone in Seattle business: Under a new federal policy, he was sponsored for an H-1B visa by a company he started himself. For the company, SnapSwap Inc., to ask that its creator be allowed to work in America is neatly circular.
A problem? Not to Kiselev. "I am creating jobs for Americans," he said.
That's a good thing -- and can be frustrated by U.S. immigration law.
Kiselev, 47, is one of several would-be founders trying to sprout companies at SURF Incubator, a Seattle home for digital entrepreneurs. "SURF" is an acronym for Start Up Real Fast, which is what its tenants are trying to do. And it's difficult when you're a foreigner.
Bhanu Mullapudi, another SURF client, came here from India in 2003. He was an H-1B worker. In 2004 he started an Internet company in his spare time, and was offered venture capital to scale it up.
"To do that I had to quit my job, and if I quit my job I had to go home," he said. In 2012 he got his green card, with the right to live in the United States permanently. Now he is starting playmysurvey.com. But he is 35 now, and has a family. It would have been better, he says, to do it when he was 27.
I hear other stories, each of them different. All seem to say the immigration law wasn't designed to accommodate foreign-born people who want to create businesses in America.
And that's of interest to Robert Feldstein, who was in Seattle last week promoting immigration reform on behalf of a group of CEOs and mayors called the Partnership for a New American Economy. The Partnership's nine co-chairs are the CEOs of Boeing, Microsoft, Marriott International, News Corp. and Walt Disney, and the mayors of New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Antonio.
This group is making the economic case for immigration reform. Part of it is the shortage of graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math -- the STEM subjects. In engineering, Feldstein said, more than 40 percent of the master's degrees and 50 percent of the doctorates are earned by foreign-born students. Twenty years ago, many foreign students didn't have opportunities at home. Now they do.
"The rest of the world is starting to compete in the global talent rush," Feldstein said. China is offering lab space. Chile is offering grants. America is still making it difficult for graduates to stay.
One proposal: give green cards to all foreigners with advanced U.S. degrees in STEM subjects. There are other proposals for people who want to start companies.
Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to agree on immigration reforms that create work here. And the two sides do agree on much of it, Feldstein said. The political problem is the rest of the puzzle. "It's hard to move one piece without every other piece trying to jump aboard," he said.
Politically it's a bit like the DREAM Act, the proposal to let children brought here illegally by their parents remain and become citizens. Any comprehensive deal would include that. Similarly, any comprehensive bill should include a more open door for bona fide business immigrants.
Meanwhile, we argue what such a bill would say about people who do manual work. It is an important issue, but not the only one.
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