By LAURA LOREK
Founder of Silicon Hills News
Immigration laws haven’t kept pace with the digital economy, said Burnie Burns, founder of Austin-based Rooster Teeth.
Burns spoke on a panel of entrepreneurs promoting immigration reform Tuesday night at Techstars’ offices in downtown Austin. Erika Sumner, co-founder of Social Good TV, moderated the event.
The Austin event attracted more than 50 people for a two-hour discussion featuring two panels.
The entrepreneurs took to the stage first. In 2004, Burns founded Rooster Teeth, which has the fourth most watched YouTube channel in the world with 5 billion views. He discussed his problems getting visas for immigrants to work for his company.
Burns ran into a lot of trouble when he tried to bring, Gavin Free, 18, from the United Kingdom to work for him.
Free is an expert on slow motion video and he’s a viral Internet hit, Burns said. Free created a video of him jumping on a six-foot water balloon in his backyard in slow motion, which has more than 50 million views on YouTube.
But the U.S. government issues only 85,000 H-1B high-skilled worker visas each year. And the annual quota is met every year within the first week of April; five business days after the filing period opens.
“We had to go through all these processes to get him to qualify for a visa,” Burns said. Free’s age and educational level proved to be big barriers to overcome to qualify for a visa for workers of extraordinary ability, Burns said. He also had to have several letters written to immigration officials on his behalf.
In 2010, Rooster Teeth had to educate the U.S. Department of Labor about what YouTube was and why it was an important platform, Burns said. And then they had to prove why Free was an important extraordinary talent in this new industry. Rooster Teeth can employ contractors overseas in the U.K. and pay them to upload videos to from there, Burns said. But the U.S. doesn’t benefit from Rooster Teeth sending money to them aboard.
“My channel can be global but my company really can’t,” Burns said.
Immigration reform needs to address emerging technologies and ways to get talent to the U.S. to fuel those industries, Burns said.
In the Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos metro area, companies filed requests for 3,087 H-1B visas in 2010-2011, according to FWD.us. They paid a minimum of $1,575 for each H-1B application.
The founders of Testlio, Viidik and Kruustuk from Estonia might have to leave the country to grow their startup. The two launched their company in London and moved to Austin to participate in the Techstars program. They would like to stay here but they are having trouble getting visas. They may have to move their company back to London.
Another panelist, Kumar, founder of iTexico, immigrated to the United States at the age of 21 with no money, no family and no friends. Thanks to the immigration policy of the 1980s, he was able to get his green card and stay and start his first company when he was 25.
“I wonder what if the green card processing took six years, seven years or ten years like it does now where would I be right now? I probably would have had to do something else,” Kumar said.
Last week, the government of Mexico honored his company, iTexico, an Austin-based mobile and Web development company, with the 2014 National Entrepreneurship Award in the small business category.
“Talent is everything,” Kumar said.
And U.S. companies are in a global competition to attract the best talent to fuel growth in their businesses and the economy.
Yet a mismatch between job openings in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields and the current workforce in Austin exists, said Michelle Skelding, vice president of technology for the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
Skelding spoke on a second panel of experts which included John Holmes, vice president of legal at Freescale Semiconductor, Peter French, president of Café Commerce in San Antonio and Ramey Ko, attorney with Jung Ko PLLC.
Currently Austin has 8,000 job openings, as of March 2014, for computer science and math jobs, Skelding said. And there are 29,000 net job openings beyond that, she said. Austin has an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent right now. So there’s a gap in available talent and jobs.
Austin universities graduate 3,000 people in the STEM fields every year, so there’s a huge need and gap in the talent pool, Skelding said.
“We need to look internationally to fill those jobs and we’re not going to displace anyone in the process,” Skelding said.
For every H1-B visa filled there’s a positive correlation with job creation with 7.5 jobs created, Skelding said.
Freescale Semiconductor has 4,500 employees in Austin and hired 115 people in Austin last year.
“Eighty percent of the folks we are hiring require immigration assistance,” Holmes said.
Freescale currently has 250 employees on H1-B visas, he said.
“The wait for those folks, I think for us is four to eight years,” Holmes said.
The worst day for the UPS man in Austin isn’t Christmas but the H1-B visa deadline day, Holmes said. In the “bizarre lottery system” for H1-B Visas this year, Freescale got 60 H1-B Visas out of the 120 applications, he said.
“Freescale would like to see the H1-B visa cap raised dramatically or eliminated,” Holmes said.
Freescale also supports the right to work initiative which allows a graduate of an accredited U.S. university with a master’s degree or higher in a STEM field to automatically get a visa.
Small businesses and startups aren’t participating in the H1-B Visa process, said Peter French, president of Café Commerce in San Antonio. The process needs to be fixed, he said.
Some of the programs to obtain visas for immigrants are underutilized, French said. To find a solution, businesses need to think more creatively about how to keep immigrants in the U.S. working, French said. Research universities have an exemption, under the American Competitiveness Act for the 21st Century, for the H1-B cap, he said.
“We can do it with some of the tools we already have,” French said.
“We’re going to find a way,” he said. “The entrepreneurs are going to figure it out.”
Immigration reform legislation has been stalled in Congress, but the issue should be addressed again this fall, said Ko. The tech community from July to November should send letters, make calls and email Congress members in favor of immigration reform, he said.
The Partnership for a New American Economy is asking people to visit pnae.us/eletter to pledge support.