As the U.S. continues to grapple with high unemployment, there is one place in the country where the jobless rate remains low: Silicon Valley. In fact, big U.S. tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook are currently waging a war for top talent. Tech executives often talk about a shortage of highly-skilled workers, and the need to make it easier for immigrants with such skills to come to the U.S. But this year, the cap on H-1B visas — which allow educated foreign workers to get a job in the U.S. — has already been reached. The disconnect between our immigration system and the needs of Silicon Valley has become so acute that plans are being developed to anchor a giant ship off the coast of San Francisco, where immigrant entrepreneurs can live and work without needing to obtain a visa. This ambitious project, called Blueseed, highlights the lengths to which some are willing to go in the face of America’s flawed immigration system.
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Silicon Valley has always relied heavily on immigrants — take Intel’s Andy Grove or Google’s Sergey Brin. Writing in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last year, Marc Andreessen, the billionaire co-founder of Netscape who now runs his own venture capital firm, described the need for tech talent in the Valley.
Many people in the U.S. and around the world lack the education and skills required to participate in the great new companies coming out of the software revolution. This is a tragedy since every company I work with is absolutely starved for talent. Qualified software engineers, managers, marketers and salespeople in Silicon Valley can rack up dozens of high-paying, high-upside job offers any time they want, while national unemployment and underemployment is sky high.
And yet as Jordan Weissmann wrote recently in The Atlantic, we’re telling skilled workers to get lost thanks to the H1-B visa cap:
Here’s how this ridiculous system works: Starting each April, the federal government distributes a limited supply of 85,000 of H1-B visas. Companies go on a mad charge to snap up as many as they need, and those who come up short are left to scheme up other, roundabout ways of getting their workers into the country. It’s a silly dance we do each year, when instead we could just welcome more smart, skilled professionals to come and work here.
This year, it took only ten weeks to reach the cap, according to Weissmann, compared to 33 weeks in 2011. It is utterly baffling that the U.S. would deprive itself of the skills of thousands of immigrants — any one of which could be the next Grove or Brin — because an arbitrary number has been reached six months early. There has been legislation proposed to help address this problem, but these efforts invariably get drowned out by the din over illegal immigration, border security, and the fate of America’s 12 million undocumented workers.
One of the consequences of the current U.S. immigration system is that we literally tell highly-skilled immigrant workers to leave the country after a certain period of time. What’s more, there is no “entrepreneurs visa” designed specifically for immigrants aiming to build startups — the lifeblood of Silicon Valley innovation. This is what Blueseed has been designed to address. As the initiative states: “Google and Yahoo! and Intel and other famous companies that were co-founded by immigrant entrepreneurs have created tens of thousands of jobs, and have built products and services that we all use every day. But who knows how many other companies we don’t have, because their immigrant co-founders were not allowed to remain in Silicon Valley?”
Blueseed, which aims to launch next year, will be anchored 12 nautical miles off the coast of San Fransisco, and will be able to accommodate up to 1,800 foreign entrepreneurs. A visa is not required, just a passport. Blueseed has skeptics, and faces a number of challenges, not least of all raising the tens of millions of dollars needed to make the venture a reality. If nothing else, the project is useful because it spotlights the need for immigration reform — and the need for a new type of entrepreneurs visa. Watch Blueseed’s founders discuss the project here: