The Immigration Battle Obama Should Be Fighting: Visas for Start-Ups

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If the president wants to kickstart immigration reform both parties can support, he should launch his tour in Silicon Valley, or Boston, or the Dulles corridor

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President Obama kicks off his immigration reform tour on Tuesday in Texas to outline a plan to secure the border while providing a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. This is a worthy debate at risk of becoming a partisan polemic. There is no evidence that Republicans and Democrats are even close to passing something resembling comprehensive immigration reform.

If the president wants to kick-start immigration reform both parties can support, he should launch his campaign in Silicon Valley, or Boston, or the Dulles corridor in northern Virginia. Here are high-tech enclaves where highly educated immigrants gravitate in search of coveted H1B visas. Many of them are Indians, with Masters from MIT, or an MBA from UT-Austin, working for large firms, consulting for the federal government, and just as often, starting their own businesses.

Along the Dulles corridor, the technology artery that connects the AOL/Verizon/IT hotspot of northern Virginia with Washington, D.C., I spoke with many Indian-born entrepreneurs and immigration lawyers for a piece in the forthcoming National Journal/Atlantic supplement on immigration and entrepreneurship. The common refrain from the start-up crowd was that immigrants rely on companies to sponsor them after graduation, which can make it hard to be a full-time immigrant entrepreneur in the U.S.

The H1B visa lottery system is imperfect and insufficient, immigration lawyers agreed. For example, the limited number of H1Bs handed out every year has encouraged some firms to game the system by applying for more spots than they have open jobs. In 2010, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services caught wind of the trend and cracked down on IT firms. Today, a limited pool of visas, stricter monitored by CIS, and faster growth in Asia, are all pushing our smartest immigrants away.

An economy is only as good as its people and ideas. It doesn't make sense to try to grow the economy by making life difficult for the thousands of the world's smartest thinkers. If it's un-American to export a job, how un-American is it to export entrepreneurs -- job-creators -- just because they weren't in the U.S.?

That's why the White House should get behind the Startup Visa Act of 2011, a bipartisan bill that grants a temporary work visa to immigrants who secure angel or venture capital and create jobs after two years. Immigrants are 30% more likely to start a business in the U.S., and "one quarter of all engineering and technology firms launched in the U.S. since the mid-1990s had at least one immigrant founder," according to a Duke study. In 2005, immigrants not only accounted for 55 percent of Silicon Valley's science and engineering workers, but also founded 25 percent of its high-tech firms. This is the kind of talent we want to quota?

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, advocated "decoupling" Startup Visa legislation from the comprehensive immigration reform package. He's on to something. Securing our borders and finding a solution for 11 million undocumented workers is an important cause, but it's too likely to become a political football for 2012. In the meantime, the United States is witnessing a historic reverse brain-drain -- thousands of people we've already spent billions of dollar educating at our best universities.

It's a cliche to say that we could be sending home the world's next Larry Page or Steve Jobs. But it's only a cliche because it's a truth that needs constant repeating. It's time to send a bipartisan message to the rest of the world: The U.S. is open for business.


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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