Startup Aims to Skirt Visa Limits With Cruise Ship for Foreign High-Tech Workers

PHOTO: Within the next few years, Blueseed plans to build vessels resembling floating apartment complexes, which will feature terraces for recreational activities and a number of amenities.Courtesy Blueseed
Blueseed plans to build floating live-aboard complexes, which will feature terraces for recreational activities and a number of amenities.

Working in the middle of the ocean without defined citizenship isn't just for pirates anymore. Some say it's the future of doing business.

One company in particular wants to test the waters, hoping to find a way around U.S. immigration protocols.

Blueseed, an offshore entrepreneurial venture, plans to address the visa shortage for international Silicon Valley hopefuls. By docking a converted cruise ship in international waters 12 miles off the shore of San Francisco, Blueseed hopes to allow U.S. companies and their foreign employees to work from the live-aboard ship without breaking H-1B visa limitations.

H-1B visas allow U.S. employers to fill specialty jobs with foreign workers.

"I applied for a green card in 2007," Blueseed Chief Information Officer Dan Dascalescu said. "The process would take five years and, in the meantime, there was a lot of uncertainty."

Dascalescu, 32, came to the United States from Romania to study Molecular Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After graduating, he worked for a large tech company in Silicon Valley.

At the time of Blueseed's inception, Dascalescu was in the early stages of the immigration process, and will be a full-fledged U.S. citizen in five years, he said. Working during the immigration process is more difficult than it seems, especially when trying to keep up with the pace of innovation in Silicon Valley, he added.

"I was thinking of starting my own start-up, but it wasn't clear if I could legally [without being a permanent resident]," Dascalescu said.

Dascalescu is intimately familiar with the process that U.S.-educated foreigners experience. After receiving higher-education diplomas in the United States, many people wish to stay and work for U.S. firms or start their own businesses but are unable to do so because of H-1B visa caps and because there are no visas for entrepreneurs.

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Russian Dmitry Karpov, an MBA candidate at Georgetown University, is an entrepreneurial hopeful who is optimistic about the opportunities Blueseed can provide to foreigners. Karpov said he believes the Blueseed ship will create an innovative community of like-minded people, which would allow startups to flourish easily.

"It is very hard to start my own business as an international student or recent graduate. It would overwhelm the startup with legal issues," he said via email. "Working on the ship is an adequate solution for those who don't seek a path to citizenship, but rather desire to work on the edge of innovation."

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services imposes national H-1B visa caps, which limit the number of non-U.S. citizens who apply for temporary work permits in the United Starts. The annual 65,000 H-1B visa applicant quota was filled this year within three days, leaving out many qualified candidates.

Karpov's reluctance to seek full citizenship right away parallels logistical problems associated with the H-1B visa cap.

"This year, 65,000 H-1B visas went in three days," he said. "Could it be worse?"

As for the problem that Blueseed is attempting to solve, San Francisco-based immigration attorney Gali Gordon said, "The annual limit on H-1B visas is arbitrary and bears no relationship to the needs of U.S. businesses.

"We are losing global talent to other countries because of our broken immigration system."

Such restrictions have proven to be especially problematic when it comes to keeping up with the demand to hire qualified tech-focused professionals in the Silicon Valley cluster. Companies often have a number of vacancies for high-skilled tech jobs that they cannot fill.

"Unfortunately, the U.S. does not produce enough tech talent [to fill all available positions]," founder Dascalescu said.

In its inception, Blueseed will use a chartered cruise ship to host more than 1,000 start-up entrepreneurs and 200 support technicians. Tentative costs for renting a space on the Blueseed vessel will range from $1,200 to $3,000 a month per person, depending on the chosen package.

Dascalescu declined to name the owner of the ship he expects to use, preferring to wait for an official annoucement of the business.

Assuming Blueseed raises the necessary capital, Dascalescu hopes to have the operation running next year.

The ship's tenants will be able to work for established Silicon Valley companies or create independent start-up endeavors without needing H-1B visas, given their location in international waters. If necessary, Blueseed tenants will be allowed to travel to the mainland for meetings and appointments by using an B1-B2 business or travel visas.

"We've spoken to individuals in [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] and the response has been very positive," Dascalescu said. "There are individuals in Congress who support us in this."

A representative of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said he was unfamiliar with Blueseed and declined to comment further.

From a legal point of view, attorney Gordon also supports Blueseed's mission. "It's a novel idea that's certain to appeal to many entrepreneurs. I think that is a good thing in terms of highlighting the critical need for immigration reform."

As for Blueseed's fate if immigration measures allow for an increase in H-1B visa allotments, "We support immigration reform," Dascalescu said. "We can bring the ship one mile away from shore if people get citizenship and want to be closer [to land]."

Despite the positive feedback, Blueseed has not been immune to criticism.

Center for Immigration Studies fellow John Maino pointed out that similar projects have been proposed in the past, and have fallen by the wayside.

"There have been groups that tried this before but [Blueseed] has been lingering a lot longer than they do usually," he said.

He also added that using a tourist visa might be more problematic than initially anticipated.

"You can't just walk from the boat to the U.S., you need to go through a port of entry," Maino said. "And repeatedly coming on a tourist visa could be illegal and considered fraud."

Additionally, Blueseed might inherently appeal to single individuals rather than families, which would dilute the pool of talent the project attracts. Russian MBA-candidate Karpov noted that although he is interested in Blueseed, facilitated entrepreneurship would not make up for all the conveniences of living on land, especially with regard to families.

"When you work and live close to other people, you have greater expectations in terms of appreciation of shared values," he said.

"[It is unclear] what kind of services would be available for young families," he added. "Would we be able to find babysitters working on the ship? How would school be organized?"

Other concerns about Blueseed include its potential effect on the U.S. job market.

"There is some backlash when people misunderstand what we aim to do," Dascalescu said. "We do not hire workers. We allow startups to work on the ship and, in the meantime, we pay taxes to the U.S."

There are some unusual considerations as well.

"There are a lot of people concerned about pirates," Dascalescu said. "People ask [what happens when] you put all these smart people on a ship and it gets attacked.

"It's a bit ridiculous to think about, but we work with a private maritime security firm [to keep people] safe," he said.

In the meantime, Dascalescu and the rest of the team have other plans for their brainchild that don't involve immigration overhaul, now a contentious topic in Congress

"We're looking to having a reality show [about Blueseed]," he said.

There's a waiting list, but interested parties might have to wait to get onboard bacause Blueseed will be filled to capacity when it starts operations, Dascalescu said.

Applicants are advised to keep in mind that each project will be brought before a standards committee to ensure that only realistic and legal endeavors are hosted on the ship.

As for Dascalescu, his future plans also involve getting accustomed to sea legs.

"The best landlords live in the building," he said, "so I will be living on the ship as well."