WASHINGTON -- Getting a visa to live and work in the U.S. can be hard, even for highly skilled immigrants and foreign entrepreneurs looking to start businesses.
A California start-up company may have found a way to get around those time-consuming, hard-to-get visas. The company is planning to anchor a ship capable of holding 1,000 people off California's shore — far enough away to be in international waters but close enough to Silicon Valley so occupants, using easier-to-obtain tourist visas and short-term business visas, can hop a quick ferry ride to meet with tech employers and investors on shore.
Max Marty, a 27-year-old who founded the start-up, Blueseed, came up with the idea after seeing so many of his classmates at the University of Miami's business school head back to their home countries after failing to secure work visas.
"I thought: 'This is terrible. These people could be here adding a lot of value,' " says Marty, who seeks to raise at least $10 million for the venture. "There's a lot of job creation and job growth that could be happening if this situation were changed."
Marty's proposal comes amid deadlock in Congress over reforms to the nation's immigration system.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that ends the practice of giving out the same number of visas for high-skilled immigrants to all countries. That will make it easier for engineers and technology experts from India and China, who are aggressively pursued by U.S. companies, to enter the U.S.
The bill does not increase the total number of those visas — about 140,000 a year — and has been blocked in the Senate by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, despite receiving bipartisan support in the House. Grassley worried that the bill does nothing to "better protect Americans at home who seek high-skilled jobs during this time of record high unemployment."
Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress, which supports a revamped immigration system to allow more highly skilled foreign workers into the country, says Blueseed's plan demonstrates why reform is needed.
"So we're having to resort to the 'Smart Boat' to get the talent we need?" Kelley said. "If this doesn't sound the alarms to policymakers that we need to revamp our immigration policies, nothing will."
Others say the project shows how far U.S. companies will go to displace American workers. Bob Dane of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors reduced immigration, said money would be better spent paying better salaries to retain the "cream of the crop" of American high-tech workers.
"They're smart enough to put the company together; they understand economics 101. They could've paid higher wages without all of the hoopla," Dane said. "I just think it's nautical grandstanding."
Marty envisions a renovated ship with a crew of up to 300 staff tending to up to 1,000 people from around the world paying at least $1,200 a month in rent. The ship would have customizable meeting areas, wireless Internet service and many of the amenities found on a cruise ship, including game rooms, entertainment venues and 24-hour food services.
The ship would be at least 12 miles offshore, ensuring that it's in international waters. It would fly the flag of a country "that follows English/American common law and that has reputable judicial systems, such as the Bahamas … or Marshall Islands."
The company got a big jolt last week when Peter Thiel, co-founder of the online payment service PayPal, announced he would invest in the project and lead the company's search for funding. Thiel has been a strong proponent for other "seasteading" projects that aim to create autonomous ocean communities.
"Tech innovation drives economic growth, and we need more of both," Thiel said in a statement. "Many innovative people have a really hard time getting visas, and Blueseed will help bring more innovation to California with a solution that is itself as innovative as it is clever."
Marty is in initial talks with designers, environmental experts, immigration lawyers and government officials to determine how to pull off the massive project.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment.
Eleanor Pelta, a Washington-based business immigration lawyer and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, wasn't sure if the project — which she dubbed the "pirate incubator" — would ever make it. But she said the effort alone indicates how the U.S. is falling behind other countries that welcome entrepreneurs and tech-savvy businessmen and entice them with visas, grants and even office space.
"It's a symbol," Pelta said. "A boat is only going to hold so many people, and what happens when their companies grow and they need real office space in the U.S.? They're not going to stay out to sea — they're going to go somewhere else where they're capable of expanding."