The idea of an entrepreneur’s or start-up visa that grants high-skilled immigrants the right to stay if they start job-generating businesses is gaining traction. Last Wednesday, a Wall Street Journal article laid out the case for it and the next day it was discussed both at a meeting I attended on how to boost innovation in the U.S and at the President’s Jobs Summit as a way to create jobs.
The need for action is indisputable. High-skilled immigrants have been the lifeblood of entrepreneurial companies that have transformed entire industries and the ways we do things, creating tremendous wealth and valuable jobs during the process. Think, for example, of Vinod Khosla of India and Andreas von Bechtolsheim of Germany, the co-founders of Sun Microsystems; Google’s Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin; Jerry Yang, the Taiwanese-born co-founder of Yahoo; and Andrew S. Grove of Hungary, who helped found Intel. In fact, just over half the companies founded in Silicon Valley from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s were started by entrepreneurs born abroad, according to immigration scholar Vivek Wadhwa. Nationwide, over a quarter of technology companies had immigrant founders or co-founders. There are many other strong pieces of evidence in favor of more highly-educated immigrants (click here to access a factsheet on the issue). The key question now is how to structure a visa idea to get at what is most important – the need to attract highly-educated and entrepreneurial job creators, and support businesses with growth potential.
The entrepreneur’s visa would be a conditional work permit for high-skilled immigrants who establish legal enterprises with a workforce that is at least 50% composed of non-alien residents (i.e. Americans who are citizens or who have green cards). You would have to enable some kind of grace period – say 90-180 days to allow the immigrant to establish the business and meet the payroll requirement before receiving the conditional visa. The visa could later turn into a permanent green card if the immigrant entrepreneur shows that the enterprise has had at least 5 full-time employees on board for six months. This transition from conditional to permanent will allow the entrepreneurs to stay in the country even if they later become angels or even employees at other start-ups.
Additional requirements could be involved, but they must be reasonable and serve the goal of attracting talent. One such requirement could be that the entrepreneurs have a degree in one of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
It is time that U.S. moves away from policies that discourage high-skilled immigrant’s contributions to the economy. The number H-1B visas for skilled workers are currently capped at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 H1-B’s for people with graduate degrees from U.S. universities. The H-1B visa process has been plagued with backlogs resulting from this quota. The process for permanent visas has in turn become convoluted, costly and discouraging. As a result, high-skilled immigrants are looking for opportunities elsewhere in an increasingly competitive global labor market, taking their innovative ideas with them.
The existing EB-5 visa shares some of the goals of an entrepreneur’s visa. The EB-5 is granted to individuals who bring in $1 million into the U.S. to start a company. However, the incentives embodied in this measure are to attract money, rather than human capital. America’s high-skill immigration system should be driven by both human capital and money. Adding a new visa category, the entrepreneur’s visa, would ensure that the system is a magnet for both.