Goodwin Insights March 07, 2017

Urgency and Unease Infuse Immigration and Innovation Discussion

Suddenly, everything changed.

When President Trump signed an executive order banning citizens of seven majority Muslim countries from entering the United States and barring entry for refugees everywhere, it spurred chaos at airports across the country and around the world, upending years of established immigration protocol.

The sudden border closings generated numerous protests and legal challenges and brought a sense of urgency to the inaugural Goodwin Download event “Immigration and Innovation” on Jan. 30 where legal experts, investors, immigrant advocates and educators discussed immigration’s importance to innovation and entrepreneurship.

“It’s important for everyone to know ­– if you don’t already – that things have changed forever. Forever,” William Brah, founder and director of the Venture Development Center at UMass Boston, told the audience assembled in Goodwin’s Boston office.

Brah was joined by Jeff Bussgang, general partner, Flybridge Capital Partners; Jeff Goldman, a noted immigration attorney; Denzil Mohammed, director of The Immigrant Learning Center (ILC) Public Education Institute, and Goodwin partner and co-lead of the firm’s tech practice Bill Schnoor. The audience included students, entrepreneurs, community leaders, business leaders, immigration advocates, venture capital investors, local accelerators and clients.

Dreams Cut Short

Brimming with optimism, energy and creativity, students from around the globe are drawn to colleges and universities across the United States and the promise of a better education. Their academic careers in the U.S. can germinate original thinking and the seeds of game-changing technological advancement. But for many foreign-born students, graduation is occasion for heartache and uncertainty.

“The best and the brightest come here to study and be inspired by our innovation ecosystem,” Bussgang said. “We train them, we connect them, we put them up on a pedestal and when they graduate, we kick ‘em out. It is the dumbest economic policy you could possibly design.”

Schnoor said foreign-born students and other immigrants are essential components in maintaining the talent pipeline for new companies.

“So many of our startup clients are either immigrants themselves or rely heavily on this pool of highly specialized workers to build and expand their businesses,” he said. “Without them, many of these companies would never get off the ground.”

Finding a Better Way

The U.S. Government issues 65,000 H1B visas every year with an additional 20,000 available to those who graduate from a U.S. university with a master’s degree or above. Every year, hundreds of thousands of petitions are filed, far exceeding the capacity. Visas are granted by lottery, and just 30 percent or so of applicants can stay beyond graduation.

To Bussgang, the notion of investing so much time in educating so many of the world’s best and brightest minds only to show them the door at the end of their schooling was simply unacceptable. Two years ago, he reached out to Goldman, an immigration lawyer in Boston, to explore the options.

As it happened, Goldman and his fellow partners had already identified a way to help foreign-born graduates stay in the United States and start a business. For more than a decade, his firm was quietly helping students and others affiliated with universities obtain H1B visas that were exempt from the cap. As long as they maintained an affiliation with a university, they could work in the United States and companies that hired them could “piggyback” on top of that arrangement to ensure that founders, innovators and entrepreneurs have an opportunity to commercialize their ideas in the U.S..

Bussgang saw an opportunity to create a systemic program and approached then Gov. Deval Patrick about endorsing and scaling the process in partnership with the University of Massachusetts. Gov. Patrick was enthusiastic about the idea, and worked with Bussgang and the state legislature to birth the Global Entrepreneur in Residence (Global EIR) program.

“Global EIR has become a go-to approach for companies who can’t otherwise find a way to sponsor their foreign nationals,” Goldman said.

To Bussgang, the program held the potential of retaining more talent – and more of their startups – in the Boston area. “When I meet an entrepreneur as an investor, it can be a little tricky if they can’t guarantee that they can stay in the country when they ask me to fund them.”

UMass Embraces Global EIR

Getting the state behind the program provided critical imprimatur. “We needed an academic partner who would be entrepreneurial and creative, and that’s where UMass and Bill Brah came in,” said Bussgang.

The University of Massachusetts eagerly agreed to host Global EIR’s pilot program.

“For UMass it’s second nature,” Brah said. “I think there are 68 different languages spoken on my campus.”

When Brah opened the Venture Development Center at UMass, half of the company founders were from other parts of the world, and he had heard their horror stories. Global EIR was the perfect remedy for their dilemma. In the two years since running the program, UMass has secured 28 visas for 22 companies.

“There are several in this room who were days from getting kicked out of the country,” Brah said to appreciative applause.

Bussgang and fellow venture capitalist Brad Feld created a non-profit, the Global EIR Coalition, to take the program national. Since the Global EIR Coalition was founded, 14 additional universities have signed on to the program, generating more than 400 employees and attracting $180 million in capital investments.

Education on Immigration

For Denzil Mohammed, education is a key component for changing public opinion and establishing fair and just immigration laws and procedures.

“If the prevailing narrative of the conversation is that immigrants are bad and they’re taking our jobs and they’re a net deficit to our economy, you’re not going to get very far,” he said. “How do you change that conversation?”

The ILC started 25 years ago as a free English learning center, serving people fleeing war and famine. But after 9/11, classes at the center were half empty. People were afraid to come to class. People were shouting at students in the street.

“That’s when we decided we needed to educate Americans on who immigrants are,” Mohammed said. “Remind them that America is a nation of immigrants and how our diversity is our strength.”

Last year a study by The ILC revealed how much immigrants contribute to the healthcare and medical research field. The study found that immigrants make up 13 percent of the U.S. population. That 13 percent make an outsized, disproportionate contribution in the United States economy where foreign born workers account for:

  • 28 percent of physicians and surgeons
  • 40 percent medical research and development scientists
  • More than 50 percent of biotech workers in states with strong biotech centers

“I hope that it inspires you to state that you were born elsewhere,” Mohammed said. “That you are adding to the melting pot that we call the United States of America.”

With Trump’s immigration order less than 72 hours old, speakers and audience members approached the evening’s agenda with a heightened resolve, and the Global EIR and ILC’s educational outreach provided distinctly hopeful alternatives.

“I just think we should redouble or re-triple our efforts, to kind of show the way,” Brah said. “When this cloud passes, we’re going to be the one’s standing up at the end of the day.”

Sidebar:

Goodwin attorneys have a history of dedicating a significant amount of their pro bono hours to advising on immigration, naturalization and citizenship matters, including working with:

  • Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) which represents unaccompanied minors seeking to stay in the country
  • Political Asylum Immigration Representation (PAIR) which represents individuals seeking asylum
  • Project Citizenship, helping legal permanent residents or green card holders to become U.S. citizens
  • The DACA program, U visa, and special visas for those who have aided the U.S. government in foreign countries.
  • The Iranian American Bar Association in Washington, D.C. On the weekend of Feb. 4, a team of Goodwin attorneys set up at Logan Airport to advise and represent Iranian visa holders traveling through Logan. The effort involved over 25 attorneys, helping over 80 travelers unite with their loved ones here in the United States.