Dear Congressman Gutierrez, Please Lift Your Hold On Silicon Valley

Editor’s note: Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University, Fellow at Stanford Law School, and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter @wadhwa. This post is part of a 4-part debate between Congressman Gutierrez and Wadhwa. Check out parts 2, 3, and 4.

During this week’s hearing at the House Judiciary Committee on immigration, at which I was asked to testify, you made some revealing remarks. You confirmed rumors that I had long heard: The reason we have not been able to resolve the visa nightmares of high-skilled immigrants is that you and other Democrats fear that if we do, there will be no urgency to deal with the plight of the millions of undocumented immigrants.

At the hearing, you said “For ten years, I insisted that nothing happen on STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics] or any other particular part of comprehensive immigration reform unless we did it all.” And then you talked about how you had agreed to an exception last year to allow 50,000 visas for STEM workers. As it turned out, your party torpedoed that bill because Republicans demanded a high price: the elimination of another visa category which is commonly called the “diversity lottery.” This provides 55,000 visas every year to randomly selected applicants largely from Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, and parts of Eastern Europe. You said that you did not want one person to get something while someone else lost something. You also argued, passionately, for family-reunification visas.

I would have voted for visas for 50,000 smart foreign students graduating with STEM degrees from U.S. universities over bringing in 55,000 randomly selected high-school graduates from abroad. The STEM graduates would have created jobs and boosted our economy. The lottery winners will come to the U.S. with high hopes, but will face certain unemployment and misery because of our weak economy.

But I’ll accept your position.

I vehemently agree with you on the importance of family reunification. I also admire your efforts to resolve the issues of the undocumented. Over 10 million hard-working people live in the shadows of American society. They came to the U.S. to better the lives of their children and their relatives back home, and to escape misery and oppression. But they have had to sacrifice their dignity, accept below-market wages, tolerate abusive employers, and live under constant fear of deportation. It is an even worse nightmare for the children of the undocumented. These innocent children don’t understand why they have inferior rights to the others that they go to school with.

As you say, this needs to be fixed, and fixed now.

But note how the immigration debates have already dragged on for more than 10 years and we have made no political progress. America is deeply divided. This is a country of laws and believers in fairness. It bothers most Americans that we are giving precedence to a set of people who jumped the long lines to enter America. Many people say these people entered the U.S. illegally and we cannot condone or reward this; that they will not agree to what is being called amnesty.

Bridging this divide will not be easy.

As I said in my testimony, I am on your side on this issue. I believe we have to reunite families and we have to come to a political compromise. But while these battles rage, Silicon Valley is bleeding competitiveness. Its companies are starved for talent and innovation is lagging. We aren’t creating the jobs that we could be.

At the same time as the 10 or 11 million undocumented workers entered the U.S., we had an influx of skilled immigrants who entered the U.S. lawfully to study or to work. They became the scientists, doctors, engineers, that lead our research labs, serve our communities, teach at our universities, and start technology companies. Indeed, as my research team had documented, 52 percent of Silicon Valley’s startups from 1995-2005 — the time of the recent technology boom — were founded by immigrants. Most of these immigrant entrepreneurs came to the U.S. to study, fell in love with this great country, and decided to make it their home. I was one. When I came to the U.S. in 1980, it took just 18 months for me to get a permanent resident visa (green card). I later started two software companies that created more than 1,000 jobs.

Here is the problem: Over the years, we brought in hundreds of thousands of high-skilled workers on temporary visas, but Congress never increased the number of available green cards. So we created a backlog of more than 1 million skilled workers and their families who are stuck in “immigration limbo.”  Some have been waiting for longer than a decade for their green cards. While they wait, they also live in the shadows. Employers know these workers can’t change jobs without losing their position in line so they don’t give them the same salary increases that they give others. They are also required to continue doing the same job as when they got in line for green cards, so their careers are stalled. What’s worse is that their spouses can’t work; in some states they can’t even get a driver’s license or open a bank account. This is why, in my response to Rep. Judy Chu at the hearing, I said “I hate to say this, but women in Saudi Arabia have more rights than the spouses/wives of H-1B workers; it’s inhuman the way we treat them and destroy careers and families.”

In my book, The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, I illustrated how these workers are getting frustrated and leaving. I suggested remedies to fix the system. I also highlighted the damage that this is doing to our economy and explained why we need these people to create jobs for Americans — and for future immigrants.

I know that you and our president really want to solve all of the problems of immigration at once. But this will take time as ugly battles are fought in Congress and in town halls. There is a real risk that we will come up empty handed — again.

My request to you is that while we fight these battles, we approve some of the legislation that will allow Silicon Valley to breathe again and to create new jobs. Please support the Startup Visa and a revision to regulations that tether H-1B workers to their employees. Tech industry heavyweights like Brad Feld, Dave McClure, Eric Ries, and Fred Wilson can tell you what the Valley is urgently looking for in a Startup Visa. Immigrant advocacy group Immigration Voice can detail how to free the H-1Bs.

The issues of high-skilled and undocumented immigrants are both equally important. The difference is that the skilled workers have mobility and are in great demand all over the world. They are getting frustrated and are leaving in droves. Let’s stem this tide while we fight the bigger battles.