Immigration and Innovation
In early May, President Obama traveled to El Paso—on the doorstep of the Mexican border to try to drum up enthusiasm for yet another push for comprehensive immigration reform. The pundits offered a collective yawn, concluding that the hyper-partisan, divided Congress would never be able to reach agreement on an immigration reform bill.
They’re almost certainly correct. However, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have said they don’t want to take a piecemeal approach to reform. But with just about everyone agreeing that comprehensive reform isn’t in the cards—especially with a presidential election year looming—doesn’t it make sense to take action where we can? Oh, right. Who said Congress makes any sense?
However, there is one element to immigration reform that both sides might be able to muster the good sense to agree on if they truly want to help jump-start the still moribund economy. That’s an effort to help immigrant entrepreneurs secure visas to start businesses and create jobs in the United States. Obama singled out the issue in his El Paso speech.
“Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities,” Obama said, generating hearty applause before dropping the bad news. “Then our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States.
“Instead of training entrepreneurs to stay here, we train them to create jobs for our competition.That makes no sense. In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can attract, all the talent we can get to stay here to start businesses—not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contribution will benefit all Americans.” A bill pending in Congress aims to do just that.
Senators John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have proposed a bill to spur job creation and increase America’s global competitiveness by helping immigrant entrepreneurs secure visas to the United States. Kerry and Lugar introduced similar legislation in the last Congress and it never went anywhere, but perhaps their colleagues will take a closer look this time around.
The StartUp Visa Act of 2011 would allow an immigrant entrepreneur to receive a two-year visa if he or she can show that a qualified U.S. investor is willing to invest in the immigrant’s startup venture. And in an expansion from the 2010 act, the pool of eligible immigrants would now include holders of H-1B visas and entrepreneurs living outside the United States with a market presence in the country.
“Global competition for talent and investment grows more intense daily and the United States must step up or be left behind,” Kerry said when he introduced the bill.
“Everywhere Dick Lugar and I travel for the Foreign Relations Committee, we see firsthand the entrepreneurial spirit driving the economies of our competitors,” Kerry said. “Creating a new magnet for innovations and innovators to come to the United States and create jobs here will offer our economy a double shot in the arm—robust job creation at home and reaffirmation that we’re the world’s best place to do business.”
Lugar said, “We want to establish a way for the smartest and most entrepreneurial individuals in the world to come to the United States and create jobs. “There’s no rush of co-sponsors for the legislation and it has only been referred to a committee at this point. But a presidential push from Obama wouldn’t hurt. He might want to take a closer look at the legislation proposed by two of the Senate’s most senior members. After all, his own rhetoric reflects the need for such legislation.
“Look at Intel, look at Google, look at Yahoo, look at eBay,” Obama said in El Paso. “All those great American companies, all the jobs they’ve created, everything that has helped us take leadership in the high-tech industry, every one of those was founded by, guess who? An immigrant.
“We don’t want the next Intel or the next Google to be created in China or India,” the president said. “We want those companies and jobs to take root here.”
Tom Michael is Innovation’s Washington bureau chief.