My freshman year college calculus class had about five hundred people in it and we attended our lectures in a large auditorium three times a week. It's been more than twenty-five years and I don't remember the professor who did these lectures, but I definitely remember his teaching assistant. His name was Samir Khabbaz. He conducted his sessions on the other two days a week when lectures weren't given. Like all of the mostly-foreign born teaching assistants that the university employed, Mr. Khabbaz was a graduate student. And, unlike most teaching assistants, students flocked to his early morning sessions.
Was he brilliant? Of course -- aren't all those guys? Was it because he was a good teacher? Not really. He was kind of hard to understand. But there was a big reason why his classes were so popular. Mr. Khabbaz has this amazing talent: he could write on the board with both hands... simultaneously. Like a magician, he would stand with his back to us and weave a tapestry of functions, derivatives and linear operators, furiously writing and jabbering at the same time, whilst his hands, those beautiful hands, would work together in perfect harmony, one hand finishing a calculation for the other. It was an amazing sight to watch. Of course, Mr. Khabbaz was unaware of his fame around campus. He would keep talking in his barely understood language, completely oblivious to the feats he was performing, while we would sit mesmerized behind him.
And yet, when the extraordinary Mr. Khabbaz finished his graduate degree at my university he was forced to return home to his native Afghanistan, where I'm sure he works his magic today. Because of our country's silly immigration laws, we lost a great, great man.
Last week a bipartisan group of senators proposed what many people are calling the Startup Act 2.0. The Act's main provisions are targeted towards immigrants like Mr. Khabbaz. Among its provisions the Act will allow immigrants who have advanced degrees from our universities to receive visas to stay and work in this country after they graduate. The Act is also providing for an "entrepreneurial visa" to those immigrants who start a business here and employ people.
And yet... I hate this Act. I seem to be in the minority. Because most people love it."Let's face it: America has a dearth of engineers," writes journalist Stephen Robert Morse.
David Leopold, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, agrees:
And our science and math education system is pathetic in relation to the rest of the world. And we have skilled labor jobs that need to be filled. The only way for America to thrive in the future is to retain the undergraduate and postgraduate students who have thrived in this country. What if Sergey Brin had to start Google in Russia? Then America would have far fewer jobs, fewer tax revenues, and less dominance over the Internet industry, not to mention less knowledge. (As Forbes wrote, immigrants make great entrepreneurs.) But the reality is that many awesome American-educated entrepreneurs are returning home.
Amid the rancor and squabbling that has come to characterize Washington it's refreshing that Senators Moran, Warner, Rubio and Coons are talking solutions in a bipartisan effort to strengthen the economy and create jobs. They should be applauded for setting aside their political differences and getting to work on behalf of the American people.
I have spoken to many of my clients and readers this past week about the proposed Startup Act 2.0. These are small business owners and entrepreneurs, employees and independent consultants. And, although my methods were unscientific, I can report this: I found no one who disagrees with what's proposed. In fact, the typical response I received was something like this: what took them so long?
Because now brilliant teaching assistants like Mr. Khabbaz can stay. They can finish their graduate degrees in advanced mathematics or nuclear physics and, instead of travelling home to their native countries and teaching scientists there how to build bombs, they can remain here with a green card and work for our government to help us build bombs. But more importantly their talents are now available to small and large companies. We can hire these people to help us develop new technologies.
And believe me, we need the help. Just look at the 25 Best Jobs (based on employer demand) listed by U.S. News and World Report: in the top ten alone we have software developer, pharmacist, database administrator, web developer, computer systems analyst and computer programmer. Trust me, most of these jobs will not be filled by your typical hipster protesting against The Man at one of this summer's Occupy events. It will be filled by hardworking, super-smart kids from other lands who are grateful to be allowed to stay in this country and pursue the American dream. I'll be looking for one or two of those guys to do development work for my company if we (hopefully) grow. And of course my preference would be to hire someone who can write with both hands at the same time, if only for sentimental reasons.
So why do I hate the Startup Act 2.0? Because it's embarrassing.
As a business owner and an American I'm embarrassed that such a fuss is being made over something that has been needed for so long and everyone agrees is necessary. That will clearly help this country over the long term by keeping those people who our own universities educated here, where many of these students want to be, rather than forcing them to leave. As a small business owner it seems so fundamentally right that it's unbelievable that these rules weren't changed decades ago. I hate that.
I also hate that we're celebrating the "bipartisanship" of the proposal. "I would guess that 80 percent of my colleagues in Congress would agree with the visa provisions in this legislation," says one of the bill's sponsors, Senator Jerry Moran. "And what I would encourage is that we not take the attitude or approach that unless we do everything, we can't do anything." With all that Congress has not accomplished during their past few sessions, we're applauding them for agreeing on something so fundamentally obvious and right? And who are the 20% of those that would oppose something like this? I hate that we have elected representatives that actually think this way. It's embarrassing.
I hate that the bill still doesn't address other immigrants. True, it's been reported that more immigrants are accepted by the U.S. than all other countries in the world combined. But it's not enough. I favor more relaxed immigration policies. People don't want to immigrate to China or Iran. They want to immigrate here. And there are plenty of smart people from all around the world who couldn't afford to pay for graduate degrees in American universities. For God's sake, there are plenty of smart people in America who can't afford to pay for graduate degrees in American universities. Can't we relax our immigration policies to accommodate them too, particularly if they commit to opening up businesses that employ people? Because they will: the owners of our neighborhood's most popular restaurant are first-generation Pakistanis, the dry cleaner who I rely on is first generation Chinese, and the hard working women who clean up our disastrous house every other week are first generation Columbian. Will the new Act specifically address these people? I hope so. Because with them comes more resources, more innovation, more demand and potentially more opportunities for my business.
I also hate that other provisions of this great Startup 2.0 bill are being mostly ignored by the media, particularly the part to make it permanent where there are no capital gains on the investment in a startup company for the first five years. I'd prefer that the period was longer, actually, but I'll take it.
I wish Congress had passed such an Act back when I was in university. Because if they did, some lucky organization somewhere in America would be benefiting from Mr. Khabbaz' brilliance, if not his talent of writing with both hands at the same time. It's an opportunity lost, I know. I hate that.
Another version of this post appears on The Philly Post.