Advocates Urge Easier Visa Policies To Boost Startups

Aug 22, 2011
Originally published on August 23, 2011 2:30 pm

As the economy continues to sputter, many policymakers are looking to entrepreneurs to create new jobs. And many foreign-born, highly skilled entrepreneurs want to come to the United States and stay here, but immigration laws and policies haven't made that easy.

In an effort to change that, the White House recently announced more flexible policies for granting visas. But many innovation experts say the changes aren't enough.

Andrew Nicol is a young entrepreneur who was born in Australia and attended law school in the U.S. After graduation, he got an employer-sponsored visa that allowed him to work in New York. But when Nicol wanted to leave his day job and start a company, he was stymied. Leaving his job meant losing his visa.

So Nicol decided to go to Chile.

"I'm basically leaving New York to come to Santiago to start a business that targets New York consumers — just because it's so much easier to do it from here, and there is so much more support from the government here," he says.

'Taking Advantage Of America's Stupidity'

Nicol is participating in a program called Start-Up Chile, a government-sponsored effort that offers entrepreneurs visas and $40,000 to help start their businesses.

"Chile has been taking advantage of American stupidity," says Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies the economic impact of immigrant entrepreneurs.

"The entire immigration system is a big mess," he says. "There are thousands of entrepreneurs who want to start companies in America but can't get visas."

The White House agrees that too many highly skilled entrepreneurs are being shut out, and its new visa rules aim to address that by increasing the number of startup visas.

But Wadhwa says the changes don't go far enough.

"There are 150 companies here right now," he says during a Start-Up Chile event. "Amazing, amazing companies in almost every area you can think of."

Those entrepreneurs moved to Chile before the U.S. changed its visa policy, and they're unlikely to move to the U.S. now.

Wadhwa says he spoke to about 50 people at the event, and at least half of them said if they had been able to go to America they would have started their companies there.

Scarce And Valuable Talents

Immigrant entrepreneurs, particularly those with highly specialized skills, are in high demand worldwide. Rob Atkinson, who heads a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on innovation and competitiveness, says the U.S. needs to do more to lure them here.

"These are scarce talents, and they are valuable talents," he says. "And they end up leading to the creation of a lot of growth companies that end up hiring thousands and thousands of workers."

Or even tens of thousands of workers. In research done while at Duke University, Wadhwa found that between 1995 and 2005, roughly half of all of the startups in Silicon Valley were launched by immigrants.

Many innovation and economic development experts are now advocating passage of legislation called the Startup Visa Act. And Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurship, is among them.

"My advice to our elected officials would be: The country is in trouble. Let's not worry about the politics of the larger immigration debate, and let's at least bite off what we can chew now and get those jobs here," Litan says.

Immigration reform is, of course, politically charged, and the broad changes being advocated require congressional action. But that doesn't seem likely, so the more modest reform efforts will have to suffice, at least for now.

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For instance, an applicant for a work visa will no longer necessarily have to have a job offer from an existing U.S. company. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports that for some entrepreneurs the changes may be too late.

WENDY KAUFMAN: Andrew Nicol is a young entrepreneur. He was born in Australia, but attended law school in the U.S. After graduation, he got an employer- sponsored visa that allowed him to work in New York. But when Nicol wanted to leave his day job and start a company, he was stymied. Leaving his job meant losing his visa. So Nicol decided to go to Chile, and that's where we found him.

MONTAGNE: I'm basically leaving New York to come to Santiago to start a business that targets New York consumers, just because it's so much easier to do it from here and because, you know, there's so much more support from the government here.

KAUFMAN: Nicol is participating in a program called Start-Up Chile. It's a government-sponsored effort which offers entrepreneurs visas and $40,000 to help them start their business.

MONTAGNE: Chile has been taking advantage of American stupidity.

KAUFMAN: That's Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies the economic impact of immigrant entrepreneurs. And when we tracked him down he didn't mince words.

MONTAGNE: The entire immigration system is a big mess. There are thousands of entrepreneurs who want to start companies in America who can't get visas.

KAUFMAN: But speaking to us from a Start Up Chile event in Santiago, which he helped to create, Vivek Wadhwa says the changes don't go far enough.

MONTAGNE: There are 150 companies here right now. Amazing, amazing companies in almost every area you can think of.

KAUFMAN: These entrepreneurs moved to Chile before the U.S. changed its visa policy, but they're unlikely to go to the U.S. now.

MONTAGNE: I've spoken to about 50 people today. At least half of them said that if they had a chance to come to America they would've have been there today. They've would've been in Silicon Valley starting their companies there.

KAUFMAN: I wanted to talk to some of them.

MONTAGNE: I can get a whole bunch of people on the phone if you want me to.

KAUFMAN: So I spoke with entrepreneurs from Australia, Italy. And from Brazil, Natalia Monteriro.

MONTAGNE: My project is Zugy - a safe search engine for kids.

KAUFMAN: Immigrant entrepreneurs, particularly those with highly specialized skills, are in high demand worldwide. Rob Atkinson, who heads a Washington, D.C. think tank focused on innovation and competitiveness says that we need to do more to lure them here.

MONTAGNE: These are scarce talents, and they're valuable talents. And they end up leading to the creation of a lot of growth companies that end up hiring thousands and thousands of workers.

KAUFMAN: Many innovation and economic development experts are now advocating passage of legislation called the Startup Visa Act. Robert Litan of the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurship is among them.

MONTAGNE: My advice to our elected officials would be: The country's in trouble. Let's not worry about the politics of the larger immigration fight. Let's at least bite off what we can chew now and let's get those jobs here.

KAUFMAN: Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.