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Workers in Silicon Valley Weigh In on Obama’s Immigration Action

By VINDU GOEL

SAN FRANCISCO — Silicon Valley’s constant stream of new apps and services depends on hundreds of thousands of foreign-born engineers to help create them. So the technology industry has been pushing for changes to the nation’s immigration policy for more than a decade to allow more skilled workers into the country.

President Obama’s executive action on immigration last week falls well short of what both immigrants and industry leaders were seeking. The most vexing issues they face, like speeding up the process for obtaining permanent residency and getting more visas for high-skilled technology work, would require an act of Congress.

Nonetheless, some immigrants working in technology were heartened by the president’s actions and said they could potentially make life and work in the United States easier.

One of Mr. Obama’s initiatives, for example, would give entrepreneurs starting a company a special founder’s visa, provided that they raise outside funding. That appeals to Laks Srini, a founder of the San Francisco start-up Zenefits.

Right now, the law is so Kafkaesque that Mr. Srini, who is from India, had to get his American co-founder, Parker Conrad, to officially hire him as Zenefits’ database administrator simply to transfer his visa from his previous employer so they could create the company.

In less than two years, the two of them have built Zenefits, an online service that helps companies manage their employee benefits, into a company with 450 employees.

But Mr. Srini, the chief technology officer, still has not been able to upgrade his visa to a more flexible type that reflects his role at the company. He is applying for a visa for people of extraordinary talent — nicknamed the “I am awesome” visa because it essentially requires applicants to meet about a dozen requirements to prove eminence in their fields.

Gesturing at the cluster of desks around his own open-plan work space, Mr. Srini said the American visa restrictions had also crimped his ability to hire talented engineers. Because the primary visas used to hire software workers, known as H-1B visas, run out in a few days when the lottery is opened every April, he really has one chance a year to hire foreigners. And if they don’t win the lottery, they have to wait another year, often forcing Zenefits to find someone else.

“When you’re a start-up, you live and die by speed,” Mr. Srini said.

Zenefits plans for now to divert some potential San Francisco jobs to Vancouver, where Canadian immigration laws make it much easier to bring in foreign engineers.

He said that immigration was a “gnarly problem” but one thing the politicians fighting in Washington don’t understand is that for every foreign engineer Zenefits hires, it also hires more than 10 American citizens or permanent residents to do various jobs.

Two of the Obama administration’s other proposals could help Zenefits and other Silicon Valley companies with their recruiting.

One would extend the amount of time that someone who has earned an American science or technology degree could work at a company after graduation. Currently the limit for such “optional practical training” is 29 months. Mr. Obama has directed immigration officials to begin a formal process to set more permissive rules for the program.

A longer training period would help companies hire more workers than the current annual cap of 85,000 new H-1B visas allows.

Mr. Srini said provisions that would allow spouses of high-tech visa holders to work would also help. Zenefits has lost promising overseas job applicants because they had wives who did not want to give up the ability to work so that their husbands could take jobs in the United States.

Glynn Morrison, a Scotsman on an H-1B visa who was one of Zenefits’ earliest employees, said his wife, a South Korean citizen, is still unable to work after nearly two years in the United States. She wants to be an accountant, but cannot legally work even as a basic bookkeeper. Although she has a bachelor’s degree, she is considering a second degree just to get a work permit, he said.

“It doesn’t make sense to have so many people in America not working,” Mr. Morrison said. “You want them to pay taxes.”

While Mr. Srini and Mr. Morrison will most likely find ways to stay in the United States for the long term, the future is more hazy for Charlotte Brugman, a Dutch citizen who is working at Samahope, a small San Francisco nonprofit that provides medical services in developing countries.

Ms. Brugman said that she and her Swiss husband, an M.B.A. student at the University of California, Berkeley, were trying to figure out what Mr. Obama’s proposals meant for them.

Ms. Brugman’s ability to work is tied to the visa of her husband, Johannes Koeppel, who is on a Fulbright scholarship that entitles him to a more permissive visa. The spouses of other foreign students at the Berkeley business school cannot work at all.

Although Mr. Koeppel is also building an online travel start-up with two American co-founders, when he finishes his business degree next year, it’s unclear how much longer he and his wife can stay in the country. Without a change in visa status, they would have to leave after 18 months.

Mr. Koeppel is hoping to qualify for the founder’s visa that Mr. Obama has proposed. But based on the details released so far, he may be in a Catch-22: It’s difficult to get that visa without raising money from investors, and it’s difficult to raise money if the investors don’t know if the founder can stay in the country.

Confounding everyone is the vagueness of the president’s proposals. While it’s clear that he cannot solve the biggest problems without going to Congress, people in the tech industry said they still did not understand how exactly his proposals would play out. In many cases, the president has outlined broad ideas, which have been assigned to the immigration agencies and various task forces to figure out.

“The two lines in the speech did not really give us much more clarity about what it will mean for us,” Ms. Brugman said.

Collectively, the president’s visa proposals for highly skilled workers would add about 147,000 people to the work force by 2024, according to an analysis by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.

That’s too little, too late for many in the technology industry.

Carl Guardino, chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents most of the region’s large tech companies, said the industry was disappointed that Mr. Obama never followed through on his original campaign promise to pass comprehensive immigration legislation in his first year in office.

“He talked eloquently and in depth about low-wage workers, and I appreciate that,” Mr. Guardino said, referring to the president’s speech on Thursday. “But from an innovation economy perspective? I wasn’t expecting a lot, and it lived up to my expectations.”

Correction: November 24, 2014
An earlier version of this article, and its headline, misidentified the legal authority President Obama used to propose changes to immigration policy. They are executive actions, not an executive order. The article also misstated how long Johannes Koeppel can work legally in the United States after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. He can work for up to 18 months; he does not have to leave immediately.

Fonte: The New York Times - 23.11.2014

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