Feb 28, 2013 · 3 minutes

A member of the so-called "Gang of Eight" senators who are leading the charge on bi-partisan immigration reform today said that a startup visa has a "good shot" at being included in the final legislative proposal put before Congress.

Startup community leaders have been lobbying Congress to include a visa for foreigners who want to start companies in the US in legislation for comprehensive immigration reform. While the Gang of Eight has indicated ready support for increasing the cap on H-1B visas for high-skilled immigrants and creating visas to keep people with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math in the US, they have so far given no public indication as to whether or not their final proposal would also include a provision for a startup visa.

The omission has concerned startup advocates, who argue that such a visa is crucial for attracting and retaining top tech talent that would help fuel job growth in the country. Earlier today, the Kauffman Foundation released a report that said a startup visa could help create 1.6 million jobs over the course of 10 years.

Speaking today at a roundtable event on immigration hosted by Engine Advocacy and the Consumer Electronics Association in the Capitol, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) provided hope for supporters of the visa. In response to a question from PandoDaily about how likely it is that such a visa would be included in the final proposal put before Congress, Sen. Flake said "There's a good chance." He did not, however, address a part of the question that asked why such a visa has so far not been mentioned among the Gang of Eight's proposals. Perhaps partly because of that lack, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) has made a startup visa a key part of his recently introduced Startup Act 3.0 bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). 

Meanwhile, three other members of Congress at the roundtable all expressed support for innovation-friendly reform of immigration laws. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT, 3rd District) stood out as a lone voice calling for "piecemeal" reform that would separate high-skilled immigration issues from more controversial issues like finding a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“We need to tackle this piecemeal as opposed to one big comprehensive bill,” Chaffetz said. He urged the audience of startups, who were attending the session as part of Startup Day on the Hill, to help prevent the bill from collapsing under its own weight. “The comprehensive side has been tried in the past and it has fallen down at the finish line every time," he said.

However, Chaffetz was occupying a minority position. President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate have said they will formally oppose any immigration reform bill that isn't comprehensive. Rep. Susan DelBene (D-WA, 1st District), a former entrepreneur, said she comes from a unique district that encompasses high-tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, as well as agricultural areas that rely on immigrant labor. She said that it's important to pass comprehensive reform to serve all those groups. "It is important for them and our overall economy that we address those issues quickly," she said.

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA, 27th District) said that “We should have in this country the philosophy that we value immigrants.” She also argued that the family visa, which has not been updated in two decades, should be a priority. Even if an immigrant gets an H-1B visa, she noted, his or her spouse are still not allowed to work in the US, can't get a driver's license, and can't open a bank account.

It was Sen. Flake, however, who had the most sobering message for his fellow Republican, Chaffetz. Flake, who earlier joked that he joined the Gang of Eight because "I just always wanted to be part of a gang!" said that Congress must consider comprehensive reform because of stark political realities. Said Sen. Flake: "We have to realize it's not our party that's in control of the Senate."

[Read our series on immigration reform.]

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]