Snakes in a Playpen: Why U.S. Policy Regarding H-1B and EB-5 Visas is Outdated and Ineffective

Posted on November 22, 2009


In an earlier post from the spring I had talked about the manner in which inspiration usually hit me in terms of ideas for the articles that ultimately find their way to the pages of this as well as other blogs. I had bemoaned the fact that at the time I had not yet incorporated into the creative process the practice of carrying a pen and paper, without which to jot down the ideas I found the exercise of remembering these flashes of inspiration tantamount to the old Larson cartoon with the playpen of snakes. Specifically I would write, “the one that depicts two parent snakes lamenting the inability of their wooden-barred playpen to contain their numerous offspring.”

The purpose of that reference points to the difficulty in trying to contain that which cannot be contained – especially by traditional methods. For this very reason, the same Larson observation immediately came to mind as a result of my interview with the incomparable Brad Feld regarding the U.S. Government’s policy surrounding the issuance of the H-1B Visa for budding high-tech entrepreneurs from other countries.

This is a subject in which Feld has had an ongoing interest for some time, as demonstrated by his April 5th, 2007 post on Feld Thoughts titled “I Don’t Understand Our US Immigration Policy.” In the 2007 instance, he expressed his dismay at the Visa Cap which limited the opportunity for skilled workers such as software developers to obtain the necessary documents that would enable them to make a tangible and needed contribution within the United States. A situation that according to our November 20th interview (Diminishing Prospects: How U.S. Policy is Undermining Entrepreneurial Vision), extends to those that seek to establish new and promising ventures in what was once considered the land of opportunity.

While the U.S. is still one of the greatest countries in the world in terms of inspiring the vision and passion which fuels the entrepreneurial engine, when it comes to accepting the potentially great contributions from those whose origins are outside of the Land of the Free, Lady Liberty’s Torch has become somewhat dimmed over the years.

Whether this is a consequence of 9/11, or the deteriorating economic picture that has fanned what some believe is the flame of the protectionist sentiment that had led to the ill-conceived Smoot-Stonehouse Tariff Act and the eventual market crash that triggered the great depression, one thing is clear . . . in the virtual economy of knowledge-based industries one is hard pressed to find a legitimate reason for the difficulty foreign nationals face in obtaining H-1B Visas. Hence the reference to the Far Side cartoon.

As Feld put it, and unlike the traditional sectors of manufacturing where geographic location was an important if not critical consideration when setting-up shop, entrepreneurs operating within the realms of the high-tech, Internet world can just as easily deliver their services to the U.S. market from Minsk as they could from Des Moines. The big difference however, is that Minsk will be gaining the jobs associated with supporting the U.S. sales, instead of Des Moines.

This of course leads me to wonder if the U.S. and even Canada are becoming nations that consume more than they create?!

Ironically, the reasons for this line of thought goes back to a statement that was made by the former VP of Supply Chain for General Motors, Bo Andersson who at the 1st China International Auto Parts Expo in 2007 stated that the “best market to sell cars and trucks in is North America, assuming you don’t produce them there.”

In the case of the young, talented entrepreneurs from other countries who have recently graduated from high profile U.S.-based institutions with what Feld referred to as “amazingly interesting start-ups,” it makes absolutely no sense in any practical terms to restrict or deny access to fulfilling their visions within the U.S. By creating onerous conditions for obtaining the necessary Visas to build their companies, America is forfeiting much needed jobs, while simultaneously accelerating rather than ebbing the brain drain that ultimately limits opportunities for all Americans.

In short, we need to adjust the lens through which we view our economic engines to reflect the new reality of an increasingly virtual, global market. In essence we need to create policy that facilitates the development of virtual enterprises domestically, where modern day “employment clusters” are established as a result of pursuing a geography of openness and true facilitation of the entrepreneurial spirit that made America great in the first place.

The snakes are already out of the playpen. Let’s not try and put them back in the same playpen, but instead create a new way of retaining the talent and recognizing the contribution of these modern day Horatio Alger-style visionaries.