Bill would help entrepreneurs, science grads immigrate

The dome of the Capitol is framed through dense summer foliage, in Washington, Tuesday, July 29, 2008. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Arguing that Silicon Valley and the nation are “losing talent and jobs by the day to countries like Canada, Chile and the United Kingdom,” a bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Wednesday introduced a bill to grant up to 75,000 green cards each year to immigrant startup entrepreneurs and 50,000 to students with advanced science and engineering degrees from American universities.

The Startup Act 3.0 is one of a flurry of visa bills being introduced as Democrats and Republicans debate a large-scale overhaul of immigration laws.

“I love it, basically,” said Stanford Law School’s Vivek Wadhwa, an outspoken advocate for expanding visas for the highly skilled and educated. “If we get this through it’ll be quite a coup for the economy.”

If the bill passes, Bay Area immigrants already here on temporary work or student visas would be able to stay permanently if they can start a company that raises or invests at least $100,000 and employs at least five full-time workers throughout its first three years.

Fifty-two percent of Silicon Valley startups were founded or co-founded by immigrants between 1995 and 2005, but the rate dropped to 42 percent in the past seven years, according to surveys by Wadhwa and other scholars. He blames mounting visa backlogs for the change.

“Typically company founders came to Silicon Valley as students and started their companies 13 years later,” Wadhwa said.
“Now, people who came here as students are stuck in limbo. They can’t start companies.”

Along with retaining aspiring entrepreneurs and foreign students with doctorates and master’s degrees, the bill would also relieve Indian and Chinese temporary immigrants stuck in decade-long visa backlogs by eliminating the cap on how many people from any one country can get permanent residency.

Among the bill’s backers is AOL founder and venture capitalist Steve Case, who testified at a Senate hearing Wednesday about the danger of American businesses losing the race for talent to other countries that have adopted more attractive visa laws.

“We’re making it harder for innovators to come and stay,” Case said.

The bill was introduced Wednesday by U.S. Senators Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Mark Warner, D-Va., Chris Coons, D-Del., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and could be folded into the comprehensive immigration legislation that President Barack Obama, most Democrats and some Republicans want to pass this year.

Divisions, however, are already emerging between those arguing for quick passage of politically popular, high-skilled immigration bills and those negotiating broader changes affecting the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants and border security.

“Right now we have people fighting for the undocumented, unskilled workers who are holding Silicon Valley hostage,” said Wadhwa, who was invited by Republicans to testify to Congress last week. “I agree with that cause, but I don’t agree that we should keep Silicon Valley hostage.”

“We should get the startup visa act passed ASAP, and then go back to the big battles,” he added.
Case, however, on Wednesday told senators that immigration reform should be comprehensive and include a citizenship pathway for illegal immigrants.

HIGH-TECH VISA PLAN

The bipartisan Startup Act 3.0 introduced Wednesday in the Senate would in part:

— Create a new visa for up to 50,000 foreign students who graduate from an American university with a Master’s or Ph.D. degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, the STEM fields.

— Grant Visa recipients conditional status as long as they remain actively engaged in a STEM field for five consecutive years. After conditional status, the visa holder would become a permanent legal resident with the option to naturalize.

— Create a new visa for up to 75,000 immigrant entrepreneurs who hold an H-1B visa or F-1 visa, and who during the one-year period after the new visa is issued register at least one new business entity starting with at least two full-time employees who are not relatives and invests or raises capital investments of at least $100,000.

— End the per-country numerical limit on employment-based immigrant visas and adjust the limits on family-based visa petitions from 7 percent per country to 15 percent without increasing the total number of visas.

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