As CEO and Chairman of AOL, Steve Case spearheaded the mainstream adoption of the internet across the US starting in the early 90’s.
He left AOL in 2003 and employed his savvy in making startup investments, until in 2011 he made the jump from capital to Capitol. For the past three years he has been pounding the pavements in Washington, D.C, engaged in policy talks with lawmakers in his Obama-appointed roles in the Startup America Partnership and the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.
During Thursday evening’s Pando Monthly event in New York he said he has been pushing two main initiatives in his time. One was the passage of a bill to ease regulations on investing and IPO’s to encourage economic growth, which passed in Spring 2012 as the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act.
The other, which Case told the crowd had always been his top priority, has been a much more difficult political sell: Immigration Reform.
On the day of his PandoMonthly appearance, Case made a splash by investing in ten companies from American regions generally not associated with startup culture, after hearing pitches at an event at the GooglePlex Wednesday called “rise of the rest.”
Just a day earlier, in the halls of Congress, immigration reform was put to a vote, this time during a session of the House Budget Committee. The vote cleaved strongly along partisan lines, was opposed by Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and failed by a 21-15 margin. The episode is the latest in a series of false-starts for comprehensive immigration reform in the House (an immigration bill was passed in the Senate last year.)
Immigration reform is one of President Obama’s stated policy priorities for his second term, but with midterm elections in the offing this fall, and the presidential election cycle creeping ever earlier, the likelihood of passing any major bipartisan bill through the Republican held house seems dim.
Case, however, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects for reform, adding that political calculus dictates it must happen this summer.
He went on to make a convincing argument for the collective benefits of immigration reform, delivering a pitch that is well tailored to mesh with the prerogatives of both party platforms.
“The story of America is the story of immigrant entrepreneurs,” he said.
He emphasized the positive economic impacts of changing the way the country regulates immigration, exhibiting the sort of bare if/then logic in doing so that one might expect from a first-generation pioneer of the internet.
“The fact that America is the leader of the free world is not an accident, it’s the result of entrepreneurs building the economy,” Case said. “If we’re going remain the leader of the free world, we must have the leading economy. And we can only have the leading economy if we are the most innovative entrepreneurial nation…so it really is not just an immigration issue or a battle for talent issue, it really is a future-of-the-nation issue.”
He went on to explain that while America has a history of risk-taking and willingness to fail, other countries had taken note and were making headway in replicating the conditions that have made the US a magnet for innovators. He cited the example of billboards in Silicon Valley purchased by the Canadian government and targeting entrepreneurs with visa issues.
“The battle has been joined. We’re seeing the globalization of entrepreneurship,in terms of what’s happening with basic research and immigration in some countries with investment incentives to get more capital into those countries…they’ve kind of recognized that the secret sauce that has powered the American story is entrepreneurships.”
“Meanwhile our policies have made it, for the most part, harder to come here and start companies here.”
Case believes that our elected officials need to seize on immigration legislation as an economic opportunity rather than an attempt to solve the problems of a porous border.
In all, Case’s approach to immigration seems politically sound and palatable, but it promises to be a summer of hard selling nonetheless. If only Congress could come up with an acronym for an immigration reform bill that uses the letters J-O-B-S.