A leading London venture capitalist has warned that the UK is failing to capitalise on the surplus of talented technologists that can no longer get into the US due to stricter immigration policies post-9/11.

Simon Levene, a partner at Mosaic Ventures, said: “Historically the US was very pro-immigration and if you were a talented computer scientist they let you in almost without question. That changed after 9/11 and the immigration rules in the US became much tougher. That should be an opportunity for the UK and other countries that are more progressive in Europe to take up the slack.”

©iStock/Fotographiabasilica

Presently, the primary vehicle for getting young technologists to the US or retaining these individuals after an education at a US institution is the H-1B visa. While a number of exceptions may apply, these visas are generally subject to a cap limit of 85,000 new visas per year, with 20,000 of the total available set aside for those with a post graduate degree acquired in the US.

In recent years, the number of H-1B filing has exceeded availability, severely limiting the number of individuals capable of securing the H-1B visa for work in the US. For fiscal year 2016 and fiscal year 2015, applications accepted within the first week far exceeded available visas, resulting in a lottery. This results in extreme uncertainty, as only approximately one third of total applicants were accepted for processing in the most recent fiscal year. 

Speaking at Pioneers Festival in Vienna last month, Levene told Techworld that highly-skilled software engineers and entrepreneurs should be able to come to the UK, adding that it would benefit UK-based tech companies and the national economy. 

“Whenever I get asked by politicians what can we do to help Tech City and London it’s always just let more talented people in," said Levene. 

There are signs that the government is trying to make tentative steps to let international technologists into the UK and London.

Failing talent visas

However, Tech City UK, a quango set up under the coalition government to support the UK tech scene, gave out just seven of its “exceptional talent” visas last year, despite having an allocation of 200.

To qualify for an endorsement, applicants must demonstrate that they are “internationally recognised at the highest level as world leaders” in the field of digital technology. Unlike other fields within the route (e.g., science, humanities, engineering, or the arts), those in the field of technology may not receive an endorsement for having “demonstrated exceptional promise and [the likelihood that they will] become world leaders in their particular area.” 

Levene, who spent 10 years of his life working in the Silicon Valley tech scene before entering the London venture capital community, said:  “It’s a political gimmick; a PR thing rather than a real thing.

“These people [talented immigrants] do pay their taxes and they do contribute to the wellbeing and wealth of the country so we should be welcoming as many of them as we can."

Lawyer's view

Laura Devine, an immigration solicitor based in London, agrees that there is an opportunity for the UK. 

"There is an argument that the UK could position itself as an attractive alternative, or even primary global destination for young technology professionals," she said. "However, as the UK’s present Conservative government has renewed its pledge to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, the avenues for these professionals to enter and work in the UK will likely only become more exclusive, rather than inclusive.

"Moreover, with a referendum on whether the UK remains in the EU to be held by 2017, a ‘Brexit’ (as a potential ‘British Exit’ is being termed) could make hiring the necessary talent even more onerous for businesses." 

Devine added that she believes the US' failure to expand technology visas is down to the fact that it wants to protect its domestic labour market, not homeland security. She also added that the US has failed to update the IT platforms underpinning the US immigration system.

Commenting specifically on the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa, Devine said: "The primary draw back to the category’s wider popularity is in the very nature of its design, to wit, its exclusivity," said Devine. "Unfortunately, this means that most young talent are precluded from applying under this route in the first instance. Moreover, even were the bar set lower, the present limit of just 200 places in the field of technology in this category would prevent any meaningful increase in the number of hires." 

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