A suite of proposed law changes have been launched in a bid to make life easier for foreigners in Taiwan and boost the country’s fledgling startup sector.

Amendments to several laws, proposed by Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Jason Hsu (許毓仁), include allowing dual nationality and extending residency granted to a foreigner to their spouse and children.

Hsu says that the policy is mostly aimed at foreign professionals and their families, has broad support in the KMT and could be supported by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“I think this is aligned with the government’s push on innovation and making Taiwan friendlier for startups,” he told The News Lens International (TNLI).

The proposal includes amending immigration laws to ensure that if a professional foreigner is granted permanent residency, his or her children and spouse would also gain permanent residency. A complementary change to employment law would mean that would mean that after a foreigner obtains residency, the spouse and children would also be allowed to work in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s nationality laws would also be changed so that foreigners becoming citizens of Taiwan could choose to give up or retain their original nationality – currently, anyone becoming a Taiwan national must first relinquish citizenship of their original country. Legislation achieving the same end, introduced into Taiwan’s parliament by DPP legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) earlier this year, is pending review.

Under Hsu's proposal, further changes to immigration law would give greater protection to people with disabilities who are the spouse or child of a foreign professional.

Startup focus

For startups hiring foreigners, the amendments would be complemented by the relaxation of the capital and sales revenue requirements, and the current two-year working experience requirement would be lifted.

Hsu, who before joining the KMT worked for Silicon Valley startups and founded TEDxTaipei, says he has direct experience of how the current system impacts the local startup sector.

“I come from the startup community,” he says. “I have experienced similar difficulties and challenges when I’ve tried to raise capital or hire foreign workers.”

Thomas Debass is the U.S. State Department’s acting special representative for global partnerships. He was in Taipei last week meeting with government officials, including "minister without portfolio" Audrey Tang (唐鳳), Hsu and a number of local entrepreneurs.

On the benefits of immigration to the startup sector, Debass told TNLI that diversity has been a “huge asset” for the United States.

“Diversity brings a tremendous amount of ideas, experiences and fresh thinking,” he says. “Most of the big companies that you know of in America have been co-founded or founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.”

According to a 2012 report by the entrepreneurship-focused Kaufman Foundation in the U.S., more than half of all companies founded in Silicon Valley by 2005 were founded by immigrants – this number had since declined to 44 percent in 2012. Forbes noted last year that among the top companies in Silicon Valley – based on market capitalization – 30 percent were run by an immigrant. That included Google’s Indian-born Chief Executive Sundar Pichai and Israeli-born Oracle Chief Executive Safra Catz.

Support from the foreign community

Michael Fahey is an associate with Taipei law firm Winkler Partners and works with Forward Taiwan, an advocate group for foreign professionals in Taiwan.

Notwithstanding that the proposals lack some detail at this early stage, Fahey broadly supports Hsu’s proposed law changes.

Allowing the spouse and children of a foreign national who obtains permanent residence to also receive permanent residence status at the same time, he says, differs from “more conservative” proposals by other legislators and the National Immigration Agency (NIA) – which would grant permanent residence only to the spouse and children of "highly skilled” foreign professionals.

Hsu’s proposal also includes creating a single platform for handling visas, resident permits and work permits for foreign professionals.

Fahey says currently applications need to be filed with three different agencies. While he supports creating a “one-stop shop,” he has some doubts as to its effectiveness, given three agencies will regulate the matters separately.

And he notes that the residency issue facing foreigners in Taiwan with children or spouses with disabilities is a “longstanding problem.”

“In one well-known case, a long time permanent resident needs to take his adult autistic son to Hong Kong every six months to get a new visitor visa,” he says.

He also notes that the National Development Council (NDC) has already made a raft of comprehensive proposals to deal with foreign professionals and is now drafting new legislation.

Pace of change slow

According to a policy proposal published by Forward Taiwan in 2014, “Taiwan’s immigration policies reflect an official view that Taiwan is essentially a monoculture nation state based on shared ethnicity and culture.”

“This illiberal view, combined with Taiwan’s isolated political situation and national development strategy have created immigration and labor laws that discourage immigration by tightly controlling residence, work rights, and the acquisition of Taiwanese nationality,” the group said.

Asked why the KMT did not advance policy in this area in its most recent eight years in power, Hsu – who became a legislator after this year's January general election – says, “Times have changed; now the KMT is the opposition party, we all need to be more aggressive in pushing the government.”

He also said the DPP was becoming more conservative on workers’ rights issues and faced challenges from labor unions.

Fahey says while there is support for changes from individual legislators and officials in the Executive Yuan and NDC there has not been a significant change in the political will to tackle the issue.

“Many legislators and civil servants are unconvinced that Taiwan would benefit from greater diversity and there is opposition based on fears that foreign professionals will take Taiwanese jobs,” he says. “This has been the situation since around 2013 and there is no real change between the Ma and Tsai administration. There is lip service to reform, but the reform thus far has been extremely timid and benefited very few people.”

Still, he notes it was encouraging to see officials from the Ministry of Labor, the NDC, and the NIA attending Hsu’s policy announcement.

Impact on ‘stateless’ migrants

Hsu says his proposal may also have benefits for some of Taiwan’s migrant worker population.

Liang Tsu-ying (梁組盈) is executive secretary of the TransAsia Sisters Association Taiwan (TASAT). The organization, as part of a wider group of NGOs and academics, has for years called for changes to the Nationality and Immigration Acts. One of its goals has been to see the withdrawal of the current requirement of making immigrants forego the nationality of their home country.

“That means you have to give up your Thai citizenship, Vietnamese citizenship before you apply for nationalization in Taiwan,” Liang told TNLI in May, noting that it is “very difficult” to regain original citizenship once it has been forgone.

“If the [Taiwan] government rejects you in the application process, you become stateless,” she said.

Editor: Olivia Yang