Ep. 54 Interview with Katie Aragon, Silicon Valley Chapter Director of FWD.us

Raw Transcript:

Jacob: Hello everybody. Welcome to Ask an Immigration Law Podcast. This is the show where we talk about immigration law issues and everything that connects with our immigration law system.

Today we have actually a different format where I have a very cool and interesting guest on the show. We’ll talk about immigration policy and we’ll also feature the organization that she’s with and I’m very, very excited to have Katie Aragon today from FWD.us. Hi Katie, how are you?

Katie: Hi, I’m good. Thanks for asking me to join your podcast today.

Jacob: Absolutely.

And just for our listeners, Katie is the Silicon Valley Chapter Director of FWD.us. Just for our listeners who are not familiar with this organization, one of the few that actually are making a difference. I believe FWD was launched in April of 2013. It’s created and backed by the top US tech community and priority funders include Mark Zuckerberg, Drew Houston, Sean Parker, and Bill Gates. And it lobbies for and promotes policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy. And really the idea here is to push for immigration reform. Was that correct?

Katie: Yes. Yeah, that’s the perfect summary.

The only thing I would add, and maybe we’ll get into this a little bit. One of the guiding aims of the organization is to really provide the tech community which has so many great things going for it in terms of network and good ideas and having really great technical skills and opportunity to really engage with our political system and actually help formulate some of the policies that affects … not just how you’re able to conduct your business but the community that you’re living in. So, that’s something that I’m always excited to share with people.

Jacob: And I think it’s really important because it’s one thing to talk about what we want to change, it’s also important to start actually doing something for this to happen.

Katie: Exactly.

Jacob: Most people that come to the US from other countries, they always ask me, “Why is that that it’s so difficult to immigrate to the US? Why is that that it’s one of those countries where – we’re leading the world in so many things: technology, and science, and space. Why is that our immigration system is actually based on rules that have not been changed since the early ‘90s as you know.” I can’ really answer that question. It’s just that it seems to me that there’s so many things that are more important than doing this but now maybe the time has come to create change.

Before we dive into some of these issues, I think – for me personally – immigration reform really has hit a nerve especially with the US tech community and especially in Silicon Valley where everything happens. And the willingness to think outside the box and take enormous projects is really happening all the time. This is really where entrepreneurs are making things happen.

Katie: Right.

Jacob: I wanted to ask you, Katie, why do you think immigration reform really matters right now in technology, especially in Silicon Valley?

Katie: Yeah. I mean I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people at all different stages in their career in Silicon Valley as well as all different spaces about this issue and why they’re personally affected by it. And I honestly didn’t even realize that I had worked on immigration from a community standpoint in the past really focusing on helping the undocumented community come out of the shadows and that sort of thing. And I didn’t realize that the tech community also was in desperate need of revised immigration laws.

But as soon as I came out here and started working and reaching out to heads of accelerators and executives at tech companies, foreign startup founders, as well as some students at local universities like San Jose State and Stanford and a bunch of community colleges, again and again I was hearing these stories of people who wanted to start businesses but couldn’t because they were on an H1B which is an employee visa that is supported by a company of students who had graduated with a degree in aerospace and were unable to work at federal organization like NASA because they were prohibited.

All of these really sad examples of people who have ambition, who have skills being held back by what – framed perfectly and outdated immigration system and series of laws that haven’t been updated since we’ve had the shift in our economy from what was previously manufacturing based revolving around physical labors who one that is termed as a knowledge economy where people are relying on their technical skills, on their innovative mindset to really pioneer concepts that drive the economy. And our immigration laws just haven’t shifted to incorporate the workers that companies based in the US really need and also the dreams that people who are committed to this industry have.

Jacob: Right. Absolutely.

Again, this is something that I think people in legislation are not understanding because it seems that they are kind of far remote to sitting in their … In Washington they are doing their thing and they don’t see how it’s actually happening on the ground. And that’s why I think the work that you’ve done in FWD has been so amazing.

And I wanted to ask you, since launch – and it’s not even been two years – you’ve increased amazingly the grassroots support for the movement. Can you share with us some of the highlights of what you’ve achieved? Maybe a few highlights of what you’ve achieved since launch.

Katie: Absolutely! I think three things really stand out to me.

As you mentioned we launched in April 2013 which was right before the Senate voted on a big, comprehensive immigration reform bill. We did a lot of work around that with other coalitions working on immigration reform to incorporate the opinions of tech and business leaders along with allies from the faith community and immigrant rights movements into these conversations and these policy debates to really provide that prospective from an economic standpoint as to why these reforms were so necessary. We were able to fly in about 80 leaders from Silicon Valley to Washington D.C. to have face-to-face conversations with legislators which I think doesn’t happen enough.

So, that was a great example of working from within our own community to really brought in this debate and the scope of prospective that people who were voting yes or no on this comprehensive immigration bill had.

We also did a lot of work on the ground to get support for some of the components of the executive option that President Obama announced in November. I think having our supporters and our members all around the country, sharing their stories not just in a traditional format, calling the office of a member of Congress or calling the office of the President. But actually circulating stories online, leveraging social media, Twitter, Facebook, blogs to get these stories out there was really impactful in helping the President go big essentially in taking as broad of an action as was legally available to him to address the needs of both the undocumented community and also the tech community. And you saw that reflected in his announcement.

One piece of it got a lot of coverage but what I always like to remind people of is that there were several really great provisions in their for tech including allowing certain individuals on an H4 visa which is the spousal visa attached to the H1B to work which is now in effect actually and people have been able to apply for work permits which is really exciting.

There was also a stipulation to increase the number of months that individuals on – students graduating from universities in the United States on a STEM degree would be able to spend an OPT (Optional Practical Training) which essentially is a period of time where you – even if you aren’t an American citizen but have graduated from US university, can spend in the US job market, honing your skills, and finding permanent employment if that’s what you’re interested in.

There are pieces of that that really would affect the fabric of the tech community and enable more individuals to participate and contribute and that was really exciting for us.

The other big component for the tech community that was in that executive option was the mention of the Entrepreneur Pathways Program which we’ve been doing a ton of work around in a month since and actually have submitted a pretty extensive policy brief on to the White House. But essentially what that program would be, and hopefully it will be rolled out in the relatively soon future, but it would expand some of the existing visa categories to allow foreign entrepreneurs at different stages in their business development to come here legally and continue to work on those projects.

It’s not a startup visa which I know the tech community has been really interested in seeing made into law because it was an executive action and only Congress and the Senate can actually create a whole new visa. But in the period between having our current system and having a whole new visa for startup founders, the Entrepreneur Pathways Program is a really great step in that direction. So, that was another big component of that.

As I mentioned, it was so interesting to have these interviews with people and tech venture capitalists, people who lead accelerators here in the valley and ask them what the major pain points were in the system when we were putting together this policy brief. There are whole host of issues that I could talk about with the current system but what’s encouraging to me is that people were so willing to have this dialogue with officials from the White House and really think about this not as a problem that will never change but as something that we as individuals who are part of this industry, part of this community, have an opportunity to give input on and really shake. So, that was exciting.

Jacob: You know, Katie, I just came back from Washington D.C. at the National American Immigration Lawyers Association Conference. The overall feeling was pretty grim as far as the future. Because while we are all excited about the proposals in November, and some of the things actually happen just like you mentioned the H4 for certain people that qualify and also the STEM, but other things like the expansion of the National Interest Waiver and we were expecting for more options for entrepreneurs based on the election, are not yet effective. And we don’t know when they will be effective. So, that was kind of the overall feeling that we’re not really sure what to tell our clients and don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe we can talk about…

Last year, and especially two years ago in 2012, when DACA was announced, it was an amazing kind of like a feeling of revival. People are so happy jumping, hugging, and this year was more of a – Well, honestly, we don’t know when and if things are going to happen. They said they’re going to happen but we don’t know.

Katie: Right.

Jacob: So, I want to ask you, Katie. What is next on the horizon as far as legislation that we are excited about, especially on the tech side?

Katie: Yeah. That’s a great question and I think there is. That sense of disappointment or feeling uncertain about the future is widespread. It’s not isolated to the group that you mentioned. You also mentioned the National Interest Waiver. That probably would be the next thing that I would see the most potential to expand.

I would actually use all that hesitation and that sort of negative energy, I would turn it into action, into asking for these reforms from both whoever you’re elected representative is as well as, for example, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Because really there are so many issues that are on the floor or are being considered.

Immigration, of course, is what FWD is focused on but obviously we have questions of job growth, we have questions of our educational system in the country, climate change, all of these things occupy legislature’s minds. And it’s really our job to make sure that we are always reminding people, especially decision-makers, that this is a huge issue, that it’s holding us back and that there’s a lot of positive energy for really prompting these changes. And I think if you make it a priority to your legislature, they’re much more likely to take action.

I would just really highlight that but it can feel like you don’t really have a place in the process because there’s a lot of layers of the bureaucracy to work through in that sort of thing. But in reality, the only people that politicians listen to more than high-level donors are their constituents. And so it’s our responsibility to take any opportunity that comes our way and actually to make opportunities for ourselves to share our stories, to ask for progress, and to really demand that this system has changed.

In terms of what could be coming up on the horizon, I can’t really postulate. I have no idea which legislature will next bring forth a really great Reform Bill. But what I can say is that 2016 will be a great opportunity, and I think a big window for people who care about this issue, to express their opinions and share what direction they think that our country should be moving in on the immigration front.

There is still a coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform that’s working everyday to push this issue forward. Especially for the tech community, I think we don’t hear from people in tech enough and I think that that’s a great opportunity and reason to become engage on this issue. Because if you’re not sharing what your issues are, how can you expect anyone to know what they are and address them.

Jacob: I agree. Katie, as we come to the end of our episode, is there anything that you want to ask our listeners or audience or something that you want people to do or can do to help make this thing happen? I’ll give you the stage to say that.

Katie: Yes! Absolutely!

So, I would start by saying you should visit our website FWD.us. We have a couple of really neat online tools that are really aimed at making it easier for people to share their stories like I mentioned which is so important, and to engage with whoever your local representative is. One of those is called Push for Reform which is a super cool legislative score card where you can type in your zip code and it will pull up your representative and show you exactly where they stand on various pieces of Comprehensive Immigration Reform including things like expanding the H1B cap or recapturing green cards, that sort of thing. Check out the tools.

There’s also a tool called Built by Immigrants which is a mobile story sharing platform. With each of these tools you can essentially generate a tweet or a letter – physical letter – that we print out for you and mail to your representative. So, that would be a great place to start. You never know what’s going to catch fire especially with social media. We’ve seen people post their stories, share them with their networks, and see thousands of people start responding to them which is so exciting.

The other thing I would say is just to remain optimistic and look for opportunities in your community to really get out there and make sure that people know that if you are an immigrant that you’re there and that you are part of the community.

And if you happen to live in one of the cities where FWD has a chapter, definitely check out our local events because we have a lot of those advocacy opportunities and cool events where you get to meet people who also care about this and are doing really exciting work around it.

If you want to find out where our chapters are you can just visit FWD.us/chapters and that will show you all the cities where we actually have a physical presence.

Jacob: And we can link everything you said in our show notes. You can send me the links that you want us to share. We’ll put them on the show notes so it’s easier for people to just go there, they don’t have to take notes right now.
Katie: Sure, that would be great. Yeah.

Stay optimistic. I know it’s hard and it can be really frustrating but there are people – and you can be one of them – who keep this issue alive. There are, I think, real lessons for the tech community here in the importance of being engaged because if you speak up people will hear you. At the end of the day all of those voices in those stories feed directly into the policies that are being created or refined. I would not want to under emphasize the importance of that.

Jacob: Perfect. And I love the enthusiasm in your voice and people can hear it and we have to make it.

Katie: Yes.

Jacob: Thank you so much, Katie, for coming on the show. I encourage people to check FWD.us. We are a huge supporters and fans of this.

Katie: Thank you so much.

Jacob: Of course. We are an entrepreneurial nation because we are a nation of immigrants. Always remember that.

Thanks for listening. You ask, we answer, simple. Come back to our show. Next episode will be something different.

Thanks a lot.