Immigration reform is a polarizing topic in U.S. politics, but there were no disagreements on the matter within the startup community at the San Antonio Startup Week immigration panel on Friday.

Comprehensive immigration reform must occur if the U.S. is to remain competitive in the global economy,  said local immigration lawyer Shahid Malik. The current system in place is one that will continue to send valuable talent in key industries like Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) away from the country.

Peter French, founder of local nonprofit research corporation FreeFlow Research, put the impact foreign-born students have on the startup community into perspective with a statistic.

Across the University of Texas system, “77% of all patents issued have at least one foreign author,” French said. “We’re not talking about an insignificant number of folks.”

A large number of visa-owning immigrants in the U.S. are undergraduate and graduate university students who, upon completing their degree, must seek out other visa options in order to avoid deportation. Those next steps are perhaps the most difficult, since they’re fighting an uphill battle against a system that rarely works in their favor.

“The fact of the matter is it’s extremely difficult if you are a highly-skilled, highly-educated international person to get a work visa to work in the U.S.,” said Jason Finkelman, an Austin-based immigration attorney.

Immigrants who want to work legally in the U.S. have to jump through a number of hoops in order to do so. The biggest and most expensive hoop of all is applying for and receiving a work visa, or an H-1B, since it functions as a lottery system with a capped number of available visas.

The few that are able to find the funds to submit their official applications, or find a company willing to sponsor their case, still don’t have a guaranteed success rate — and it’s all based solely on luck.

“Before your application is reviewed based on its merits — whether or not you’re a good fit as a person who should be working in the U.S. — a bunch of applications are put to the side because they don’t win the lottery, so people aren’t even ranked according to their qualifications,” said Nicolas Baker, Texas regional organizer for FWD.us, a tech-centered immigration reform organization.

For those foreign-born entrepreneurs, the process is even more difficult since there is no specific visa for them. It’s cases like these that are the most frustrating, Baker said, since some of the most innovative entrepreneurs and their ideas are slipping through our fingers.

Immigration attorneys like Malik and Finkelman must take creative approaches when fighting for their clients’ ability to attain a work visa, finding loopholes in the system that often seem impractical.  The H-1B states that these entrepreneurs cannot be self employed, which pushes many individuals to hand over their business idea to someone else.

Mary Spaeth, PhD, describes her experience as an immigrant in Sweden. Photo by Camille Garcia.
Mary Spaeth, PhD, describes her experience as an immigrant in Sweden. Photo by Camille Garcia.

Still, Finkelman said, there are many times when all viable options are exhausted.

“I have to nine out of ten times look people in the eye and say ‘You know what? There are no options for you. And I know you’ve got a PhD, I see you’ve got investors but there’s nothing for you,’” he said. “To see that look (of disbelief) in their face is hard.”

Beyond a comprehensive reform in immigration policy, French said, immigrants simply need the opportunity to be more informed about their options.

“We need to, and this requires no change of law, arm everybody with the operating policies and the facts that we can utilize to at least keep folks here,” he said. “Extending the runway is really what it’s all about.”

An ideal future, the group agreed, would be one where the immigration laws reflect the needs of the country and create opportunities for leaders in the startup sector to blossom despite their nationality.

Like everyone present at the discussion, Malik takes pride in his line of work and admires that the foreign-born entrepreneurs that he fights for are “innovative risk-takers.”

“Our job as lawyers is to find creative solutions to do things lawfully,” he said. “And now there’s just a lot of talent that we really don’t want to lose to another country.”

*Top image: (From left) Peter French, Jason Finkelman, and Nicolas Baker discuss the process of applying for a H-1B visa. Photo by Camille Garcia.

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia

Camille, a San Antonio native, formerly worked at the Rivard Report as assistant editor and reporter. She is a freelance writer based in Austin, where she is getting her master's in Latin American Studies...