Immigrants start and/or lead many of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley: Google, Oracle, Microsoft, etc. But with immigration reform in Congress stuck in neutral, a growing number of would-be entrepreneurs are choosing to pursue their Silicon Valley dreams someplace else.
Navish Jain’s aha! moment came after eight years of working at Cisco as an engineer. He'd read news headlines about criminals finding their prey on Craigslist, and it struck him just how much he trusted Cisco's in-house digital message boards.
What if, he thought, there was a housing platform that verified that every user was either a college student or gainfully employed? "Those people are more trustworthy and credible as compared to complete strangers," Jain thought, first to himself, and then out loud. He dubbed the new company Cirtru, inspired by the phrase "circles of trust."
But Jain faced a dilemma. He couldn't work on Cirtru while working at Cisco, and because of his visa, he couldn’t stay in the U.S. without working at Cisco. He was on a temporary, employment-contingent H-1B visa. A green card would have solved that but he’s Indian, and the backlog of Indian applicants stretches to 10, even 25 years.
"I waited for my green card for seven, eight years. I wanted to launch my startup here, create jobs, solve this problem here. But since my green card did not come, I was forced back to move to India," Jain said.
He explained all this on a recent morning in Sunnyvale, a city he used to live in, while waiting to deliver a pitch for his company at the startup accelerator Plug and Play Tech Center.
Think of it like speed dating in Silicon Valley. Roughly half the people in the room for that particular "Friday Pitch Day" were there to pitch their startups; roughly half were looking for startups to invest in. Each entrepreneur had five minutes on stage with his pitch deck to sell his idea, his team and his desired level of investment.
People came from all over the world: Azerbaijan, Greece, Sweden, China, Germany, Japan. Even the local teams were packed with members whose accents betrayed that they didn’t start life in Northern California. There was a palpable atmosphere of excitement and ambition in the Plug and Play auditorium. For so many people in business around the world, Silicon Valley is where it's at, the promised land, the global nexus of opportunity.
Of course, other countries are keen to mimic the magic of the San Francisco Bay Area, and Jain's home country of India is no exception. Investors from around the world are pumping money into Indian startups. Jain is competing for those investors, too, but he said Cirtru is primarily designed for American users. After moving his family back to Mumbai, Jain now flies to the Bay Area periodically on temporary business visas for events like "Friday Pitch Day" at Plug and Play.
The backlog that Indians face for green cards didn’t start with the Trump administration, but it's inexorably linked to the collateral damage produced as federal immigration officials pursue the president’s Buy American, Hire American executive order.
On signing the order, President Trump said of H-1B visas, "They should be given to the most skilled and highest-paid applicants. And they should never ever be used to replace Americans." Theoretically, employers pay H-1B visa holders prevailing market wages and hire them only if they can’t find qualified American workers. But there have been news headlines — and lawsuits — claiming some companies are flouting the law.
Vivek Wadhwa is a distinguished fellow at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon University of Silicon Valley who writes about technology. "The anti-immigrants rightfully criticize H-1B workers because they have no choice but to keep working for the same employer for 10, 15 even 20 years while they wait for green cards. And when they’re in this limbo, they can’t change jobs, they don’t get the same salary increases, they’re stuck doing the same jobs they did a decade ago," Wadhwa said.
John Miano is a former tech worker who became an attorney in order to sue over the H-1B program. "Congress cannot even decide what H-1B even is. The original H category was strictly guest workers. The H-1B of today has been transformed into a holding pattern for immigration." Miano argues the law itself is designed to profit employers who want to ditch American workers. "That is not abuse; that is what H-1B is intended to do."
Leslie Dellon, staff attorney for the pro-immigration American Immigration Council, disagrees. "It's not the H-1B classification that creates a problem. If employers are complying with the requirement of paying the higher of the prevailing wage or the actual wage, then you're not going to have a 'lower-paid' H-1B in the position. And, I believe the current law and regulations provide the agencies with ample tools to take action against those who don't comply."
In the meantime, the Trump administration's clampdown has effectively killed an entrepreneur’s visa that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates nearly 3,000 would apply for annually if it were a real thing. The Department of Homeland Security has delayed implementation of the Obama-era program twice and promised it plans to kill the rule entirely.
Somebody like Jain has the financial freedom to leave Silicon Valley and still pursue his startup. But Wadhwa warns that a growing number of other countries are eating Silicon Valley’s lunch, starting by snapping up entrepreneurs who feel they're getting the cold shoulder from the U.S.
"Now, the chances of them succeeding in India, China, Brazil, Mexico are greater than here, because the cost of developing startups has dropped dramatically. And you have pockets of intelligence everywhere now. You have startups everywhere now," Wadhwa said.
"The United States may be becoming more xenophobic," he added, "but that's to our loss, our detriment."