The politics of "lean immigration reform"

By Gina Cooper , written on February 20, 2013

From The News Desk

Last week, Vivek Wadhwa an entrepreneur and academic who emigrated from India, and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL), engaged in a debate on immigration policy tactics. Their main point of disagreement centered on whether those advocating for "startup visa," a proposed amendment to the US immigration law to create a visa category for foreign entrepreneurs who have raised capital from qualified American investors, should work for comprehensive immigration reform or adopt what Wadhwa calls Lean Immigration Reform.

And, with apologies to Eric Ries, who is credited with coining the term "lean startup," what is "lean immigration reform?" Wadhwa explains:

After a lot of trial and error, Silicon Valley learned that, in order to achieve big goals, you need to take small steps. You have to make compromises, and you have to give and take. In the startup community, they call this the lean startup, because you start by fighting battles that you can win, fortifying your victories, and then becoming more and more ambitious. That is what I am suggesting for immigration reform. That we keep fighting the big battles, but demonstrate what is possible – with lean immigration reform.
In this model, Wadhwa suggests that proponents for comprehensive immigration reform back a less ambitious measure that can be won as a precursor while other “ugly battles are fought in Congress and in town halls.”

If Wadhwa’s tactic is “lean startup” Congressman Gutierrez’s commitment to Comprehensive Immigration Reform is more like Josh Kopelman’s approach with First Round Capital. Kopelman thinks collaboration adds value when growing a portfolio.

In a PandoDaily interview published earlier this month, Kopelman said:

Wouldn’t it be amazing if instead of having a portfolio of independent companies that operate in silos, you could have a community of entrepreneurs that share their knowledge directly? If your portfolio is a connected and sharing community, every time you add companies to the portfolio you are increasing the value that everyone gets because you have more people who have that level of experience.
Gutierrez’s tactic rests in the similar theory that collective action builds strength. Lets call it the "connected community model."

Both Wadhwa’s Lean Immigration Reform and Gutierrez’s allusions to a connected community model are useful frameworks for evaluating immigration reform tactics.

The success of Mr. Wadhwa’s lean immigration reform tactic rests in a single assumption, that the startup visa plan is a less ambitious battle that can be won on its own and then held up as inspiration for what else is possible. "Winning" in this case means getting 60 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House of Representatives.

Now it may seem obvious to readers of tech publications that immediate action is warranted, since Silicon Valley suffers from is a severe lack of engineers and remaining competitive is so crucial  to the tech economy and every sector it touches. But if it were obvious to enough members of Congress, we wouldn’t have this problem, which means Wadhwa’s Lean Immigration startup has some persuading to do.

At the heart of Wadhwa's argument is the belief that the tech economy is important enough to the future of America that policy initiatives should prioritize tech's needs. Wadhwa’s book, "The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent," makes a case for such urgency.

On the other hand, Congressman Gutierrez argues that our economy is just as dependent on non-skilled immigrants for their role. His view is further supported by the reality of places like Miami and Dallas and many other metropolitan areas across the country whose immigrant share of the population is just as high as those in tech centers like Silicon Valley and Seattle. Non-tech regions also depend on the economic contributions of their immigrants, even though they are less likely to be the type who would qualify for STEM visas.

In other words, there is reasonable disagreement over the issue of whether one set of  immigrants or another is better for our economy, though clearly are both additive. That’s not the entirety of the disagreement. Wadhwa makes a highly principled argument for the future of our economy while Gutierrez’s response is more about the pressing demands of the here and now.

This is not unlike many other policy arguments headlining America. Do we open up North American fossil fuel reserves to address our energy independence needs now or do we invest in clean energy technology for a future where we are less dependant on these very same fossil fuels? Do municipalities steer current tax revenues towards public pension obligations or do they prioritize overdue investments in education? Should tax policy favor job creation by expanding current sectors, or should it encourage scientific research in search of the next great discovery?

Another perspective to appreciate is the strength of anti-immigration reform foes. The status quo must be cheering whenever one immigrant group is pitted against another.  Wadhwa identifies several problems – long waits for green cards, the exploitation of workers by unscrupulous employers, the hardships on families, which are shared by all immigrants that are trapped in our current system's bureaucratic limbo, a system that serves the economic needs of no one. When opponents of reform square groups against one another that, in reality, have shared interests, that’s called wedge politics, which is generally not productive.

Proponents of Comprehensive Immigration Reform include organized labor, Latino organizations, pro-business groups, progressive advocates, and a growing number of conservatives along with many others. By hitching their wagons to one another and calling for reform at the systemic level, they are a formidable group, representing a broad constituency. Their approach is philosophically in tune with Mark Suster’s advice to “never negotiate piecemeal.” And judging by the varied interests gathering behind Comprehensive Immigration Reform, they’re taking his advice about making “frenemies” as well.

Within the context of Koppelman’s view of building portfolios where members gain value by sharing with one another, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform coalition can count their legislative support collectively. They are getting pretty close to 218 + 60. By being inclusive of one another, they are more resistant to wedge politics and because their efforts are the culmination of years of work, they also have the buy-in of a public who views comprehensive reform favorably. In short, they have a lot less persuading to do than Wadhwa’s Lean Immigration Reform camp.

It’s hard to disagree with Mr. Wadhwa’s point that we desperately need to help people who want to create jobs in this country. Enacting startup visa legislation is part of that, but convincing immigrants from non-tech centers to step aside in the meantime is politically difficult. Further, members of Congress from non-tech centers have to answer to their own constituents who are demanding comprehensive immigration reform to address their needs now.

Joining startup visa to the coalition for comprehensive immigration reform builds on the political infrastructure already in place. Not only would tech advocates benefit from this relationship, but tech’s position at the nexus of modern communications suggests that startup visa supporters would add value to the portfolio of organizations fighting for immigration reform.

Lean is good, of course, but in this case the better course of action would be to push for comprehensive reform. Then everybody wins, not those lucky enough to fit the narrow requirements of startup visa.

Read our ongoing coverage of the immigration reform debate.