Opinion

opinion | Marcela García

Baker’s shortsighted choice on tech and immigration

Governor Charlie Baker.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file 2014

Governor Charlie Baker.

When Governor Charlie Baker started tackling the $760 million budget deficit, he proposed cutting from dozens of line items. But seldom has a cut of a mere $1 million caused such a fuss in the tech community.

That’s because Baker wants to cut a fledgling program called Global Entrepreneurs in Residence, which former governor Deval Patrick launched last year. The program provides visas to foreign students, in the hope that their startups will take root here.

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The concept was the brainchild of venture capitalist Jeffrey Bussgang of Flybridge Capital. Bussgang also teaches at Harvard Business School, and he grew frustrated watching as talented foreign students, who wanted to launch promising businesses, had to leave the country.

It is a lament of many in the startup world: H1-B visas for skilled workers remain capped at 85,000 nationally, hostage to the larger immigration debate, though many on both sides of the aisle believe in making visa allowances for skilled immigrants.

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But Bussgang devised a smart workaround by piggybacking on universities, which are exempt from H1-B caps. The idea: A foreign national works part time for the research arm of a sponsoring university, while developing a startup the rest of the time.

The program was originally funded in 2014 at $3 million, though Patrick reduced its funding to $1 million in the face of a budget gap. Then Baker announced his intention to drop the initiative completely. The Twitterverse wasnone too pleased.

Meanwhile, the two current Global Entrepreneurs in Residence, from India and Ireland, will work to launch their businesses. Bussgang says the program needs state sponsorship to get off the ground, but eventually, universities will handle the cost, which amounts to about $30,000 per entrepreneur.

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Now, Bussgang is eager to meet with the Baker administration to try to save the program. “I want to tell the governor that this is not an immigration reform initiative,” says Bussgang. “This is an economic development initiative.”

Baker has no choice but to run a no-frills government. But by nixing a smart plan to do an end run around the visa roadblock, he may be penny wise and pound foolish.

Marcela García is a regular contributor to the Globe opinion pages. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.
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