By ANDREW MOORE
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Geekdom of San Antonio Wednesday night held a virtual town hall meeting for the March for Innovation, a movement supporting immigration reform by creating a virtual march on Washington.
The virtual march was a series of online town halls streamed live from New York, Austin, San Antonio, and San Francisco. The cities streamed their town halls in a coordinated consecutive event, with San Antonio going live at 7:15 p.m.
Free Flow Research founder Peter French organized San Antonio’s virtual town hall meeting along with the Silver Fox Studios, located on the 10th floor of the Weston Centre. French was also coordinating with Jeremy Robbins, the director of the Partnership for a New American Economy and senior policy advisor to New York City, Mayor Bloomberg.
Hosted by Talk Now SA’s Chris Duel, the event included guest appearances by Trinity University President Dennis Ahlburg, San Antonio Councilman Diego M. Bernal, a skype chat with Congressman Joaquin Castro and more.
“The March for Innovation itself is built as the largest virtual march on Washington,” said French. “The idea is to leverage the power of social media to send digital waves across the country over a two day period and activate hundreds of thousands of people.”
To become part of the event, Twitter users sounded off with the hashtag #iMarch and Facebook users switched their picture to the iMarch logo to show support. The March for Innovation website is also pushing social media — allowing users to easily tweet, facebook, or call their local representatives in support of immigration reform.
All this comes in the wake of the Senate Judiciary Committee passing immigration reform legislation with a vote of 13-5. Action on the legislation has been led by a bipartisan group of senators called the “gang of eight” including Senators Marco Rubio, R-Fla., John McCain, R-Ariz., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Michael Bennet, D-Colo. and Bob Menedez, D-N.J. The legislation will finally reach the Senate after June 1, with no opposition from Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
San Antonio leaders such as City Councilman Bernal see this as a positive step for both the country and the city of San Antonio.
“From a city perspective, our job is to make sure that we retain and attract talent,” said Bernal. “Without comprehensive immigration reform we are losing out on lots of opportunity for great folks to be here, work here, live here; and not take jobs as people have said but really create jobs.”
Ramiro A. Cavazos, president of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the current immigration policy actually leads to a loss of talent.
“Unless you are a political exile….or you are leaving a communist country, we are not embracing talented people,” said Cavazos. “You come to a graduate school in this country and you get a degree in innovation and technology, and we ship you back to India or China and then they start companies competing against the U.S. We want to keep the high-tech and low-tech workforce in San Antonio.”
The issue hit closest to home for Parlevel Systems co-founder Walter Teele, who has gone through the long, complex, and uncertain process for immigrant students coming to the United States.
“There are immigrants who are very hungry and very eager to build companies in the U.S. that are creating jobs. And those companies are going to have a high impact on the economy.” said Teele. “So it’s counterproductive to create barriers for these immigrants to create companies in the U.S.”
Teele is all too familiar with the barriers to becoming an immigrant entrepreneur. According to Teele, students wishing to study in the U.S. must first come on a F1 visa. The student must work full time and can only take part time employment offered by the college. After they graduate, a student must pursue a job in his or her field and apply for a OPT, or Optional Practical Training visa, to stay in the country.
This only lasts the student one year. To work in the country longer, immigrants must find a company that will hire them on long term and sponsor them for the H1-B visa process. The H1-B Visas is a nonimmigrant visa that allows companies to hire foreign workers with specialized skills.
After completing this process, there is still a risk that the student immigrant might have to leave the country. If the U.S. receives petitions for more than its annual quota of 85,000 H1-B visas, such in 2013 when it received 124,000, then all of the petitions submitted will go into a lottery process and will be randomly drawn – leaving both the business and the graduating immigrant on the hook for months.
“Even if your application was literally the first in the door, if the lottery goes into effect you don’t know for certain of your application will be chosen,” said French. “The economic crux of this issue is that current economic policy makes us less competitive.”
Fortunately, as a founder of Parlevel Systems who has invested in his startup, Teele may sponsor himself under special visa rules. Teele’s particular type of visa can be renewed indefinitely, but normal H1-B visas last only a maximum of six years. Teele believes that the economy would greatly benefit by creating a system where entrepreneurs can become citizens and continue to contribute.
“If you want to open a company in the U.S. and you are going to create jobs and you can raise money for it, you should be able to stay. Period,” says Teele. “There has to be a path to citizenship for entrepreneurs.”
Currently, however, there is no path to citizenship for Teele. But this is an issue that the new immigration reform bill will hopefully address.
“I do think that the current immigration bill does a decent job for trying to account for some of those things,” said City Councilman Bernal. “It does account for the transition from being foreign born and getting and education to wanting to be a U.S. employee.”
Full disclosure: Geekdom is a sponsor of Silicon Hills News. Silver Fox Studios is also an advertiser with Silicon Hills News. Laura Lorek, founder of Silicon Hills News, supports H1-B Visa expansion and immigration reform.