Massachusetts is now the anti-Arizona.
Thursday morning, Gov. Deval Patrick announced a plan to exploit a loophole in federal immigration law. He hopes it will get Massachusetts around a 10-year shortage in H-1B visas for high tech workers.
Update: Comments from Massachusetts’ secretary of economic development, below.
Brief background on the H-1B: It lets U.S. companies employ non-immigrant workers in specialty occupations. At its peak from 2000 to 2003, it issued nearly 200,000 visas a year. In 2004 Congress let the cap fall to some 85,000. This year, we hit the H-1B limit for 2015 in five days.
Lifting that cap is among the provisions of a Senate immigration reform bill that is going nowhere in the House, despite Nancy Pelosi’s hopeful publicity tour. The Senate bill would also staple green cards to immigrant students’ high-tech diplomas. Obama’s tied up in the regulatory gridlock, with Republican legislators blaming him for the delay.
Patrick looks to be executing an end-around, setting up Massachusetts’ own version of the “startup visa.” How it works: an official told The Boston Globe the administration found a provision in immigration law that grants visas to foreign graduates that are participating in “certain programs.”
In Patrick’s plan, that would mean an Entrepreneurship In Residence program run by MassTech, a public agency in Massachusetts, in collaboration with local universities. These “Entrepreneurs In Residence” would be graduates who are working on new business ventures and could qualify for H-1B, but won’t get one due to the cap.
Patrick is joining Jan Brewer of Arizona and a handful of other governors who are trying to solve their states’ immigration problems on their own. Michigan in particular has made an issue out of this: Gov. Rick Snyder wants to lure 50,000 technically skilled workers to Detroit.
They’re moving in the opposite direction, but Michigan and Massachusetts are now fellow travelers with Brewer and the half-dozen-or-so states that have tried to set up their own immigration laws and policies. (Utah is another liberal mover. Their state Legislature in 2011 approved a “guest worker” program for law-abiding undocumented immigrants.)
Gregory Bialecki, Massachusetts’ secretary of economic development, told me the governor backs national immigration reform and isn’t trying to “push the envelope of what is allowable.”
The legislation filed by the governor Thursday morning would set aside $3 million for an “Entrepreneurship In Residence Fund.” According to the legislation, the fund is to support the operation of the program. Massachusetts’ EIRs will be paid a salary from the fund, Bialecki said.
Its benificiaries will apply for nonimmigrant visas under section 101(a)(15)(h)(i)(b) of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(15)(h)(i)(b)).
Patrick’s direction may not steer him clear of controversy. H-1B’s have been derided as a back door for siphoning jobs to immigrant workers for lower pay. Massachusetts is the sixth largest user of H-1B’s in the nation, but the program has historically done more to benefit IT offshoring in the state. USCIS data from 2012 (reported by CommonWealth Magazine) showed the biggest Bay State user by far was Patni Americas/iGate, an Indian IT services conglomerate. The top U.S. company on the list, EMC, was No. 3 with 135.
“Our intention is to start with entrepreneurs precisely for that reason,” Bialecki said. “If someone is starting a new business and hiring people, it’s hard to argue that that person is taking away jobs.”
The question remains whether it will become available down the line to graduates looking to work for more established companies. Entrepreneur-In-Residence is a good name for the headlines, but its working association with H-1B might send it down to the same fate many other good ideas have met in Washington.