FWS.us Panel on Latinos in SA's tech ecosystem

“They’re taking our jobs” – It’s a common quote in the immigration debate. However, this contradicts America’s foundation and the free-market capitalist system that America has relied on.

Last Wednesday, immigration advocacy organization FWD.us sponsored a panel discussion in downtown San Antonio to prove that immigrants are job-makers and not job-takers. The discussion focused largely on the San Antonio tech industry and the role which Mexican entrepreneurs are playing in San Antonio’s economy.  The panel was hosted by Geekdom Project Manager Jesus Salas, and included local tech entrepreneurs Walter Teele and Carlos Villaseñor, San Antonio International Business Manager Reynaldo Cano, and Business Consultant Javier Smith.

“I think it is very important to keep in mind that Mexico is a partner of the U.S. and Mexicans are coming here to San Antonio and the U.S. to make this country better and to improve themselves,” Salas said. “Most people think that they come and are taking jobs away, but we’re here because we want to take that image out and show that Mexicans are here to give jobs, pay taxes as American citizens and have more opportunities.”

Jesus Salas and Walter Teele. Photo by Matthew V. Pompa. Courtesy FWD.us
Jesus Salas and Walter Teele. Photo by Matthew V. Pompa. Courtesy FWD.us

Salas wants people to understand that San Antonio has a strong connection to Mexico and that it’s important for San Antonio to attract Mexican entrepreneurs. Salas believes that Mexican entrepreneurs will, in fact, create more jobs for Americans, and hoped to use the panel discussion to prove his belief.

Panelist and entrepreneur Walter Teele, the founder of Geekdom-based startup Parlevel Systems, currently employs four Americans. Panelist Carlos Villaseñor, founder of Biovideo, claims to employ around 45 American employees in several U.S. cities, and panel moderator Salas said he was aware of at least 10 more Mexican-founded tech companies that employed five to 10 people each.

These numbers are not huge compared to the overall San Antonio tech scene, or economy in general, but Salas claims there is a huge potential for many more if some of the barriers in the current immigration system where removed – specifically in the area of visas.

Simply put, it’s very difficult for immigrants – even highly educated immigrants – to come to and stay in the United States. International students who graduate in the United States have one year to get either a H-1B visa or TN visa. Failure to do so means they must return to their country of origin. To stay with an H-1B visa, immigrants must find sponsorship with an American company, costing that company time and money, and then apply for one of the 80,000 H-1B visas given out by a lottery system and hope they are selected. TN visas must be renewed yearly, are only available to Mexicans and Canadians with certain technical skills.

Students cannot, however, start a company and sponsor themselves. So the existing immigration policy for immigrant-student entrepreneurs is the same as your local bar at closing time – you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. Entrepreneurs hoping to immigrate legally from their country of origin after returning must wait several years and endure a complicated legal process.

As a result, San Antonio tech companies and entrepreneurs don’t have access to the needed tech talent that highly educated immigrants could provide them. Entrepreneurs like Walter Teele, who is originally from Mexico, already has established relationships with talented Mexican tech professionals but can’t get them on this side of the border to help grow his company – the legal and financial barriers are just too high.

“With the visas, it’s a ridiculous amount of work, amount of research, amount of waiting, amount of change,” Teele said. “It just makes more sense if they stay there (in Mexico) and we do a long distance relationship than do all the hassle and take so much risk to bring them over here.”

San Antonio International Business Manager Reynaldo Cano Photo by: Matthew V. Pompa. Courtesy FRD.us
San Antonio International Business Manager Reynaldo Cano
Photo by Matthew V. Pompa. Courtesy FRD.us

According to panelist and San Antonio International Business Manager Reynaldo Cano, a change in the immigration system that would allow such tech professionals to work in the U.S. would be of a particular benefit to San Antonio, because of the similarities in San Antonian and Mexican culture.

“A lot of people describe San Antonio as the northern most city of Mexico,” Cano said. “When an entrepreneur comes and develops here – especially one of Mexican origin – there is a lot of familiarity and it serves as a very good bridge between two entrepreneurial systems that can be very different.”

Cano says the legal infrastructure of the U.S. business system is very different than that of Mexico, and is sometimes the biggest challenge for Mexican entrepreneurs. He says San Antonio has many service providers – bankers, lawyers, etc. – that come from a Mexican culture and can make the transition easier.

FWD.us, the 501(c)4 issue advocacy organization which hosted the panel, is currently working to reform immigration so that the United States can better utilize both foreign talent and the 11 million undocumented immigrants that currently reside in our country. The organization’s goals include providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, increasing border security, increasing the number of yearly H-1B visas available, creating an employment verification system, and preventing broken families caused by deportation. FWD.us Communication Director Kate Hanson said the San Antonio panel was just one part of a larger movement to push for immigration reform.

“We know that the impact of immigration reform would be a huge boost to local tech and business communities across the country – San Antonio included,” Hanson said. “It’s really important for House Republicans and members of congress to hear the voices of citizens and tech entrepreneurs in their districts because there is a very broad coalition of voices in tech, and business, and (agriculture) who will tell you that our system is fundamentally broken and it’s time to vote on immigration reform legislation.”

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Andrew Moore is a native of San Antonio and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote on tech startups for a year as a freelancer for Silicon Hills News and loves reporting on the cool...