If any place is the cheering section for the latest effort to create a special visa for immigrant entrepreneurs, it's Silicon Valley.

Venture capitalists and valley boosters have been calling for years for the so-called startup visa, which would welcome to the United States immigrants who have bold ideas, financial backers and job openings. The consensus in the valley? It's a no-brainer.

"When you have people from all over the world who want to come and bring money with them and create employment in America, why wouldn't we do it?" says startup visa backer Vivek Wadhwa, the writer and academic with ties to Stanford and Singularity universities. "What's wrong with us?"

The visa push is on again with the recent introduction in Congress of Startup Act 3.0, which includes a section that would grant visas to immigrants who have attracted at least $100,000 in investment and who hire at least two employees in the first year. The pro-visa chatter seems all the more urgent this time because Congress actually seems prepared to do something about immigration this year.

Given the heightened attention to all things immigration, it will be tempting for Silicon Valley power brokers to push for the new visa without getting tangled up in the comprehensive immigration issues that have stalled the startup visa in recent years.


Advertisement

Never mind the farm workers who are looking for a more stable work visa; or the dreamers, who were brought to this country as children; or the 11 million or so undocumented workers who have contributed to the economy for years and are hungry for some sort of path to citizenship. It will be tempting to argue that the startup visa is too important to get bogged down in those other, more controversial causes -- too important to our economy and too important to maintaining Silicon Valley's place as the innovation capital of the world.

I get the arguments. In fact, the two paragraphs above pretty much summarize the column I originally planned to write. Then I talked to Emily Lam, who coordinates federal issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. The leadership group, which represents some of the biggest and most prosperous companies in the valley, has been a strong backer of the startup visa. But that's not all. The group is pushing for the visa as part of a much broader immigration reform package -- a package that would include a path to citizenship for undocumented people living in the United States.

Lam took me through the political calculus of the immigration debate and in doing so got me thinking beyond the political and economic ramifications of the coming legislative battle. I started to see the moral implications of the debate.

First the politics: Lam points out that Democrats, including President Obama, have said they like the startup visa as long as it's part of a broader, comprehensive solution. Republicans, who are looking to repair years of damage to their relationship with Latino voters, are at least willing to talk about creating a path to citizenship. And both parties are eager to get something done in the wake of exit polls in November that showed voters of both parties favor comprehensive reform.

All of which means, Lam says, that in this case the whole is definitely stronger than the parts.

"We really want the visa done," says Lam, who's worked on immigration issues for a decade. "But we can still join in coalition with labor, with immigrants rights groups, with others. If we link arms, we'll have a better chance of getting this done."

More importantly, this may be the best chance in a long time to achieve real change.

"So many people want it done in some form or fashion, there is a lot of excitement and political will," Lam says. "The politics is lining up with the policy. It just doesn't get better than this in terms of a window of opportunity to pass something this big and this complicated."

Which is how I came around to the moral implications. Yes, this is a chance for Silicon Valley to get its startup visa. But it's also a chance for Silicon Valley power brokers to join voices with those who say undocumented immigrants who have been following the rules and contributing to our prosperity deserve a chance to become full citizens. If a path to citizenship isn't mapped out now, with the political stars aligning, it might be a very long time before the next chance comes along.

No one is saying those who came to the United States illegally should get a free pass. There will no doubt be requirements -- for instance fines, waiting periods and demonstrated proficiency in English and U.S. history.

What better place than Silicon Valley to push for a path while looking out for its own interests? Silicon Valley is a place where you go big or go home; a place that won't settle for the moderate approach to the narrow problem when a bold approach to a big problem is possible. Silicon Valley is a place that likes to brag about thinking outside the box.

Now is the time in the immigration debate to put some substance behind the swagger.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.