Visa Challenges Hold Back Foreign Entrepreneurs

Founding a startup company is never an easy proposition.

Many fail early on, while only a handful ever gain the right mix of startup capital, talented employees and innovation required to make a small idea big.

But those small businesses that do make it drive the majority of all new jobs created in the United States, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship.

To lure its own share of successful entrepreneurs, Atlanta‘s development authority, Invest Atlanta, has recently taken a special interest in entrepreneurs, designing a new program known as Startup Atlanta to connect innovative businesses with local resources.

However, at a time of high unemployment in the United States, where most jobs are created by small companies, visa troubles for foreign entrepreneurs educated in the United States is hindering what could be a key driver of America’s economic recovery, said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-based attorney and former national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“We’re losing some of the best minds of the immigrant generation that we educated, and I don’t see how we as a country can justify doing that,” Mr. Kuck said. “Why would we educate people, why would we train them at the best universities in the world and say ‘We don’t want you to stay here?’ That’s insane.”

Considering the example of Silicon Valley, where immigrants drive a large portion of startup economic activity, there’s no reason cities like Atlanta can’t make use of highly educated immigrants in certain fields from universities like the Georgia Institute of Technology, Mr. Kuck continued.

However, because there is not a clear path for immigrants once they graduate to form startup companies, said Stephen Fleming, a former venture capitalist who now oversees the Enterprise Innovation Institute at the Georgia Tech.

“There’s not a path right now for a bright young graduate student at Georgia Tech to come out of Georgia Tech and start his or her own company,” Mr. Fleming told GlobalAtlanta. “The immigration service doesn’t have a process for that.”

The consequence, Mr. Fleming said, is that young, educated immigrants return home to emerging centers of startup activity such as BrazilChinaIndia and Korea or stay in the United States working jobs that are less innovative but more stable.

Meanwhile, a number of other countries, including the United Kingdom and Chile, have picked up on the idea of granting special startup visas to immigrants with local backers, he continued.

In September, Canada also announced plans to introduce a new immigrant visa for startup investors after it suspended applications more than a year ago for its entrepenur visa, which reportedly had an eight-year backlog of applicants.

In recent years, the U.S. government and a bipartisan cadre of legislators have recognized the danger immigration challenges pose to the country’s overall competitiveness, Mr. Fleming said, although little has been done about it.

For the past two years, Congress has debated the proposed Startup Visa Act, a bill that would create a new visa category from unused quotas of the EB-5 investor visa, which requires investors to put down $500,000 to $1 million and create 10 jobs.

Since first proposed in 2010, the bill has floundered in both the House of Representatives and Senate despite bipartisan support.

While many recognize the need for reform, various conflicting interests have made immigration reform appear to be an all-or-nothing proposition, said Daryl Buffenstein, an Atlanta-based immigration lawyer with experience writing key business provisions of major immigration legislation over the last decade.

“Really, the politics behind startup visas are the politics behind immigration generally,” Mr. Buffenstein told GlobalAtlanta. “There’s a sense that startup visas would be a good idea, and there have been a number of proposals out there, but nothing on immigration is really moving because it’s a very sensitive, somewhat radioactive, issue.”

Mr. Buffenstein said that unless a larger, sweeping immigration reform package including startup visas were to be pushed, it’s very unlikely the idea will move forward anytime soon.

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Video caption: Stephen Fleming, vice provost of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, discusses some of the the challenges immigrant entrepreneurs face in forming successful startup companies in America, among other issues. The video was shot following the Aug. 14 announcement of StartUp Atlanta, a program meant to facilitate startup growth in Atlanta, by Mayor Kasim Reed.

This story first appeared on GlobalAtlanta.com Sept. 19.

 

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