Heartland Talent Visas
One of the most common pieces of advice that I have heard over the last few months has been that venturing forth to San Francisco would allow me to access new pools of knowledge and open me up to a whole new world of entrepreneurship and innovation. I do not doubt this statement, and as a matter of fact, I intend to move to San Francisco in the near future. San Francisco and the Bay Area is a global startup hub where failure is embedded in the culture and where those who have a different vision of the world are able to explore their passion and develop new solutions to difficult problems they are interested in. The benefits of moving to — or at least visiting — San Francisco are out of the purview of this essay.
The aforementioned advice, while valid, has inspired many people to move to SF in order to explore their dreams, and in the process has made it more difficult for the U.S. Heartland to retain the talent that it needs in order to reach higher levels of economic prosperity. The United States is the “land of opportunity” and despite the fact that cities such as SF, and New York City get most of the attention, there is still a lot of potential in less startup-oriented areas of the U.S. such as Oklahoma and other such states. Population decline has affected communities in every state, and half of all US states lost strong working-age adults from the period between 2007 and 2017. In addition, 43% of counties in the average state lost citizens in that same time period.
The rising costs of rent and properties in the main tech hubs have pushed many people away from these areas and have made it even more difficult for outsiders to participate in the unique culture which they bring. This shows that these hubs are clearly generating economic value — but at what cost? These costs may discourage people who have an ambitious vision to move to these locations, which will cause the U.S. as a whole to be unable to attract the high levels of talent it previously could, thus losing out on an opportunity to generate more economic value for the country.
Solving this problem is difficult, but one of the ways in which I believe the U.S. could encourage more people to consider moving to non-tech hubs would be to issue a new class of visas — the “Heartland Visa”. This visa would allow people in technology to move to the U.S. Heartland — cities like Chicago, IL, and Indianapolis, IN — and earn the ability to move to the rest of the U.S. after a certain period of time. A Heartland Visa would encourage more people to move to cities that are traditionally not considered technology hubs and would allow those cities to attract the talent it needs to grow and become more prosperous.
My advice would be for US states to be able to grant foreign individuals the ability to move to that specific state, under the condition that they stay there and either start a company or work at a company for a certain period of time.
For the cities, this would mean that even if people are working remotely for out-of-state companies, they would have more potential consumers that would frequent local businesses, and there would be more people who would be required to pay any taxes to the local governments. These people may end up staying in the city even after their visa has expired, and would allow the cities and states offering a Heartland Visa to retain talent for longer which could help generate more value for local businesses.
Letting people into the country through a Heartland Visa may also help encourage more entrepreneurs to start up in the US. While working from a traditional tech hub such as SF can help companies get started, there are still many successful technology companies that are not based in one of the large technology hubs in the US. In fact, the TechStars accelerator got started in Boulder, Colorado. These founders would then generate more economic value for the city, and may also encourage more founders to set up shop in the city. For a startup hub to succeed, it first needs a few companies which can show that the location is viable and would provide benefits to the company by starting there. Perhaps one of the largest advantages that cities offering a Heartland Visa have is the on average lower costs of living than places like NYC, and SF, which would help entrepreneurs save money when they are starting their company.
A Heartland Visa would also allow cities to attract the talent they need to become larger technology hubs. If Lansing, MI became known as a place with a good pool of tech talent, more companies would likely move there because it would make sense to go where the talent goes. Imagine how beneficial a small division of Google would be to the city if they were to generate enough value? The one or two successful companies open an office in a Heartland-based city would be the magnet for technology talent, and would encourage more people to follow suit and establish a presence in that city. Portland, OR is a good example of this, in that they have quickly grown to have divisions of Google, and Intel open in their city. While Portland is not in the Heartland, they have demonstrated that talent begets talent.
Heartland Visas would not allow cities to become hot tech spots like SF quickly, but it would create a way for them to be seen more favorably by people looking to emigrate to the US. On a national scale, a Heartland Visa would spread highly-skilled immigrant workers around the country, which means that more cities can benefit from the economic value the tech industry is generating. The states which signed onto the program would increase levels of entrepreneurship in states where tech talent would normally avoid and would give states access to a wider pool of human capital that can help the state become more competitive on the tech scene.
For immigrants, this program would also have a number of benefits. At present, the US immigration system has many inefficiencies which make it incredibly difficult for people to migrate. High legal costs and the complexity of the application forms and requirements mean that many high-potential individuals cannot move to the US due to financial constraints. For those who are denied a visa the first time, it can be difficult to gather the funds they need to file for a second time. The CEO of Zoom, now worth over $16B, Eric Yuan, was refused a US visa eight times even though he was already generating vast amounts of economic value at the time of his application.
A state-based program would give states more power in the immigration process and would potentially result in changes being made to help ensure that the best talent can easily apply for a visa and emigrate. In addition, a state-based program would provide a flexible and additional pathway for skilled immigrants to enter the US, provided that they make a commitment to a specific state for a certain period of time. A Heartland Visa could become a road to citizenship or permanent residency if the program were to scale, which would incentivize people to spend more time in a particular state and generate more economic value in the process.
Current visas such as the H-1B and O-1 visa have strict requirements, and H-1B visa holders must work for the employer who sponsored them or move to a company who can sponsor a visa extension. Visa sponsorships are normally reserved for larger companies which can pay for additional legal resources in order to hire the best talent from around the world, which increases the inequality of talent across the US. A Heartland Visa would bring the ability to hire better talent to smaller businesses across the country, which would level the playing field and help smaller businesses become more competitive.
The places with decreasing populations generally have residents who are less educated than those in other counties. This causes slower job creation, housing markets to become devalued, and adds additional stress on public funds to help cover the costs associated with talented residents leaving Heartland cities to move to SF and other such technology hubs. A Heartland Visa would make it easier for these cities to retain talent and ensure that local businesses could select the best quality candidate for the job which will allow them to create more economic value for the entire city and state.
Establishing this program would have a few roadblocks. The first would be determining exactly how these visas would work. Would they be employer-sponsored with a clause that allowed people to change employer assuming they still resided in the state? This would be the most likely outcome to ensure that talented people do not emigrate. Would these visas be co-signed by cities, or the states themselves and sent to the federal government? A new workflow for applying for Heartland Visas would likely have to appear, and while it may be time-consuming to set up a new application process, it is not impossible.
Immigrants have one thing in common — they have left their familiar surroundings in search of a better life. Those that choose to move to the US may have a specific city in mind, but adding the option to move to a state in exchange for a path to citizenship in the near future may help encourage more people to move to the state. States would be able to attract talent, more immigrants would be able to enter the US. The visa would be a win-win for all. The politicians who proposed such a visa would likely gain a lot of support as well in elections based on their work to help reform the education system.
Maybe all that states like Michigan and Ohio need are state-issued visas which would allow them to attract enough technical talent to establish themselves as miniature startup hubs. The cost of such a program would be small relative to the amount the government spends on immigration, and it seems worth it to try a pilot program to assess the viability of a Heartland Visa. It will take a lot of time and effort to work with the federal government to develop such a program, but it would certainly be worth it in the long-term for the states interested in hiring through a Heartland Visa.