By Sarah McBride
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco-based entrepreneur Garrett Johnson is usually too busy with his messaging start-up for much travel, but one issue has inspired him to cross the country: immigration reform.
On February 5, he and a dozen other entrepreneurs will head to Washington to talk with members of Congress about why new visa rules are needed to bring in the kind of talent that would help their companies grow.
They are striking now because Congress has taken up immigration in recent weeks, with a group of legislators working to find some sort of reform that would be acceptable to a majority of Congress, a staffer familiar with the situation says.
The skilled-worker visa reform the entrepreneurs want is relatively uncontroversial. Yet many Democrats say they do not want to address it without also taking up a thornier question: giving the 12 million or more people in the country illegally the chance to gain legal resident status and even become U.S. citizens.
While big technology companies have long schmoozed government to help advance their agendas, including patent reform and cybersecurity, the move is highly unusual for start-ups, say entrepreneurs and others in the technology community.
"Primarily they don't get involved because everyday they're trying to keep their doors open," said Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, organizer of the trip. But when it comes to outside issues affecting young companies, "immigration is absolutely the biggest on the horizon."
The entrepreneurs' wish list includes letting demand, rather than a quota, determine how many of the popular skilled-worker visas known as H-1Bs are issued. They also want visas and permanent residency documents known as green cards for entrepreneurs and those holding degrees in key science-related fields, and exemptions from caps on H-1Bs and green cards for those with advanced U.S. degrees.
Start-ups care because they have trouble finding all the staffers they need to grow, software engineers in particular. Many of the most suitable applicants apply from overseas — often from China or India - and are too hard to hire because it is time consuming and expensive to sponsor a candidate's visa. Thousands more jobs are forfeited when companies are unable to expand, say economists.
Many engineers say technology companies are trying to game the system and find cheap talent abroad instead of hiring one of the thousands of unemployed engineers already here. That goes for start-ups, too.
"What they're doing is saying, 'We don't want to pay a fair wage,'" said Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, a group representing U.S. software and networking engineers. He supports H1-B visas only if recipients earn salaries of at least $100,000. He also is for helping overseas entrepreneurs with good ideas come to this country. Green cards could be issued, for example, once a company proves to be a domestic jobs creator.
For Johnson, who worked as a staffer on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee before leaving in 2011 to found SendHub, the trip allows him to lobby officials on an issue close to home. His co-founder, Briton Ash Rust, had to hopscotch from job to job until he found one that offered working papers. He did finally land a green card.
The situation still dogs the company, which now numbers 11 people, when it comes to hiring.
"About 95 percent of the applications I get, I have to turn away because I can't get them a visa," said Rust.
Entrepreneurs are hoping to tap into the momentum created the last time start-ups got riled up. That was over Internet legislation known as SOPA and PIPA that died early last year, quashed in part by complaints multiplied across social media like Facebook and Twitter. One was that the bills' provisions could compromise the functioning of the Internet.
"Everyone is riding the high of the influence startups have," said Johnson. As immigration reform moves along and new proposals become public, the same platforms "will be our value add," he said.
Silicon Valley has long supported immigration reform for high-skilled workers, and some companies have even voiced support for comprehensive reform, as long as it meets their goal of winning more visas for potential employees.
"We would like to see reform of the high-skilled visa system, regardless of approach," said Lisa Malloy, an Intel spokeswoman. Software maker Microsoft Corp has called for comprehensive reform, as has computer maker Hewlett-Packard Co.
All three are among the technology companies that backed last year's STEM Jobs Act, which aimed to give 55,000 visas to foreigners with U.S. graduate degrees in key fields. The bill passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives but never came to a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
During their trip, the entrepreneurs, including Virginia Klausmeier of smart-fuel startup Sylvatex, will focus on high-skilled reform, Guardino said, because what they know best is the need to increase the pool of legal job candidates.
"Whether Congress and the Administration do that as a standalone or part of a bigger comprehensive immigration bill is not the relevant point for us," said Guardino. "Our key message is, get that job done."
If the effort on broad immigration reform fails, he said, Silicon Valley would keep pressing on skilled-worker reform.
(Reporting by Sarah McBride, editing by Prudence Crowther)