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Don’t Forget Immigrant Entrepreneurs in Immigration Reform

The attributes that motivate an immigrant to leave behind the familiar surroundings of home and pursue a better life in another country, often at considerable risk of personal loss, are akin to the attributes of an entrepreneur who takes the initiative to pursue new business ventures, often at considerable risk of financial loss.  Stated another way–immigration is an entrepreneurial act.
It is therefore not surprising that immigrants to the United States and their children have made some of the most significant contributions to the U.S. economy.  Consider these findings from a recent report published by the Partnership for a New American Economy:
  • More than 40% of the 2010 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
  •  Fortune 500 companies founded by immigrants or children of immigrants employed more than 10 million people worldwide.
  • The Fortune 500 companies that boast immigrant or children-of-immigrant founders have combined revenues of $4.2 trillion– a figure greater than the GDP of every country in the world except the U.S., China, and Japan.
  •  Seven of the ten most valuable brands in the world come from American companies founded by immigrants or children of immigrants.
Yet the outdated U.S. immigration system does not always welcome immigrant entrepreneurs with open arms and an efficient and predictable process for them and their families to attain lawful immigration status so they can focus on starting new companies and creating new jobs.  While there are temporary and permanent visas available to immigrant entrepreneurs (e.g., temporary visas for nationals of certain countries coming to the U.S. to engage in substantial trade or to make substantial investments [E1 or E2 visas, respectively]; and a permanent visa or so called “Green Card” for those who invest between $500,000 and $1 million in a new commercial enterprise that creates at least 10 full-time jobs [popularly known as EB-5]), the often cumbersome and time-consuming application process to obtain these visas, coupled with their demanding requirements and shifting and sometimes unpredictable adjudication standards, make pursuing these visas unpalatable for entrepreneurs who are accustomed to moving quickly and efficiently.
Fortunately, the U.S. government recognizes this problem and has started taking steps to make the system more entrepreneur-friendly.  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has implemented the Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR) program where real-world immigrant entrepreneurs advise USCIS about how entrepreneurs operate in the real world and how USCIS can make visa programs more entrepreneur-friendly.  It has also recently introduced an online resource called Entrepreneur Pathways: A Resource for Immigrant Entrepreneurs to help immigrant entrepreneurs navigate the complicated U.S. immigration system.
These are steps in the right direction, but more must be done.  As Congress engages in the much-needed process of overhauling and modernizing the country’s outdated and broken immigration system, one of the pillars of reform must address the immigrant entrepreneur.
The managing director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer in the MIT Sloan School of Management recently shared in the Forbes Leadership Forum and the Huffington Post their observations about this problem and their ideas for how to address it.  These gentlemen, who teach an introductory entrepreneurship class at MIT, observe that U.S. immigration policy is killing entrepreneurship.  They note that if the three in 10 students at MIT, including four in 10 graduate students, who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents want to start their own company in the U.S., there are few viable options, if any, for them to do so and remain lawfully in the United States.  They astutely observe:  
Innovation-driven entrepreneurs are the engine of a vibrant economy. Their high levels of education and their pursuit of global markets and rapid expansion create jobs and economic prosperity. And many of them, such as these MIT students, were not born in the United States. There is a global competition to recruit this talent, and countries such as Canada, Singapore, and Australia have introduced policies that are far more welcoming than ours. Although strides have been made in retaining immigrant science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students, these measures are largely designed to let immigrants to fill jobs in existing companies. Would-be immigrant entrepreneurs still face major obstacles and uncertainty.
They recommend we consider three areas to make it easier for immigrant entrepreneurs to start American companies and create American jobs:
  1. Focus not just on skilled immigrants filling positions in existing companies, but also on immigrants who want to create new companies.
  2. Appreciate the talent of these entrepreneurs rather than making them feel like aliens.  (Unfortunately, I have found this is how many immigrants feel, regardless of their skill or talent level.)
  3. Shape the immigration laws, regulations, and application processes and procedures so they are more responsive to the needs of foreign talent in an increasingly competitive global market. 

The 21st century American economy needs a 21stCentury immigration policy so that the U.S. has a competitive advantage, not disadvantage, in the global competition for talent.  As we move forward, we must include in our national discussion about immigration reform how our immigration policies can be adapted to be more responsive to the needs of immigrant entrepreneurs.