Andrew Mason talks immigration reform at Zuckerberg forum in Chicago
Nihal Advani came to the U.S. from India to play college tennis and got a job at Microsoft after graduation, but couldn't get a work visa and had to move to Canada. Craig Ulliot is worried that he'll lose a promising young employee if she can't get an H-1B visa to stay in the U.S. and keep working at his startup.
Such were the stories shared Friday by local entrepreneurs at a panel discussion on immigration reform held by FWD.us, a political advocacy group launched by Facebook founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg in April. Its supporters include Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. Andrew Mason, the co-founder and former CEO of Chicago-based Groupon, is also a financial contributor to FWD.us.
The immigration reform bill passed the Senate last month and has moved onto the House of Representatives. The legislation seeks to raise the number of annual H-1B visas from 85,000 to 180,000. This visa program was created in 1990 to allow foreign professionals with specialized skills in areas such as science and technology to work in the U.S. for up to three years, with the ability to tack on another three years.
FWD.us is pushing for an expansion in the H-1B program, which its members see as necessary for hiring and retaining high-tech talent.
"We would've loved to have hired engineers a lot faster, but we just couldn't find enough high-quality engineers, and actually that was in many ways our bottleneck to innovate faster, to deliver more functionality for our customers," said Mason, who relocated to San Francisco earlier this summer.
Mason was joined at the panel discussion, held at the 1871 startup hub at the Merchandise Mart, by U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill.; Match.com CEO Sam Yagan; and several other Chicago-based startup founders and executives. Advani now lives in Chicago and runs a travel startup called Georama, while Ulliot is the chief technology officer at digital loyalty startup Belly.
The proposed expansion of the H-1B program is a contentious issue in the U.S. technology sector. Many Silicon Valley companies say they need foreign engineers to fill a gap of homegrown talent, while labor unions and other critics say the H-1B visa holders are taking jobs from skilled American IT workers and keeping wages low.
The panelists on Friday were united in their support of passing the immigration bill. When an audience member, who identified himself as a University of Chicago-educated network engineer who's looking for work and frustrated because "Silicon Valley millionaires" are biased toward young workers, none of the speakers volunteered a response.
On the sidelines of the event, however, Foster addressed the issue of competition between foreign and domestic workers, saying the creation of high-tech jobs for skilled immigrants tends to beget more such positions. He also urged tech startups to examine ageism, which he described as "a continual worry."
Mark Harris, the president of the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition and the moderator of Friday's event, said that in 2011, 2,700 high-level specialists were unable to get work visas after graduating from Illinois institutions. More than 40 percent of Illinois students with masters and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering or math disciplines are temporary immigrant residents, he added.