Columnist George F. Will once wrote that immigration itself is an “entrepreneurial act.” Immigrants have to be willing to risk a lot to leave their home country in pursuit of more promising opportunities in America. This is exactly the type of personality that’s necessary to challenge the status quo in business, science and technology.
Immigrant-started ventures have thrived throughout American history. Their ideas and business acumen consistently produce jobs and significant economic value. The majority of modern unicorns (privately-held tech startups with more than $1 billion in sales) were founded by foreign nationals. Yet despite the cultural and economic benefits of immigrants and immigrant-founded businesses, they face multiple hurdles in the United States.
A Long History of Entrepreneurship
Immigrants founded more than half (50 of 91, or 55 percent) of all American privately-held startups valued at $1 billion or more, according to a recent study from the National Foundation for American Policy. That’s a staggering $248 billion in value, and underscores the role immigrants play in creating millions of U.S. jobs.
This figure does not include smaller immigrant-started firms or the public companies they’ve created that are integral to American Business. Companies such as Anheuser Busch, AT&T, Carnival Cruise Lines, Chevrolet, DuPont, eBay, Goldman Sachs, Google, Kraft Foods, Nordstrom, Procter & Gamble, Sun Microsystems, Tesla and Yahoo! all have at least one first-generation immigrant founder. Second-generation immigrants such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos further illustrate the generational impacts of immigrants.
The problem for the business community is that it’s only benefiting from the foreign nationals who are lucky enough to stay in the U.S. Many other hopeful entrepreneurs have abandoned their efforts because there was no visa for them to stay. The entrepreneurs that do stay generally have a family sponsor, refugee status or some other means. They did not get a visa because of a superb business idea that could turn into a billion-dollar company.
The U.S. immigration system lacks a vehicle to encourage this activity, despite the enormous contributions of immigrants. They’ve been successful despite a system that is not designed to facilitate business growth by foreign nationals. In addition to proving a business concept and raising capital, foreign nationals must navigate an immigration system that doesn’t welcome their contributions.
American immigrants’ entrepreneurial success is remarkable because there is no mechanism to encourage these thought leaders to establish their roots in the United States. There is no visa category that allows someone with a million-dollar idea to come to and ultimately stay in the country.
Immigrants Constrained by Law and Policy
It’s a fair assumption to think a foreign national here on a student visa could launch a business after coming up with a great idea in school. That’s not the case. The visa they are using is the F-1 student visa, which is very limited. Generally, the F-1 visa holder may not accept employment, and self-employment is strictly off-limits.
Furthermore, there is no logical visa for these students to switch to in order to join the business community. Brilliant minds from around the world are able to come to the United States on student visas. We gladly educate them in our best universities and then generally ask them to leave; they frequently start businesses in their own country.
U.S. companies frequently recruit highly skilled foreign workers through the H-1B visa. These highly coveted visas are difficult to obtain, even with the help of a company’s legal counsel. The H-1B visa holder must maintain employment with the sponsor company, and they may not start a side business. H-1B requires a sponsor company, and prohibits the immigrant’s company from sponsoring his or her own visa.
Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published the International Entrepreneur Rule (IER). The regulation, which was scheduled to take effect on July 17, 2017, established a new process and criteria for certain foreign entrepreneurs to be “paroled” into the country and seek U.S. investment to develop and grow businesses. Although sold as the coveted “startup visa,” its weak implementation has been its downfall. The current Trump administration quickly moved to dismantle this rule and has not presented a suitable replacement.
Until a true startup visa is established that gives foreign entrepreneurs permanent residence in the United States, the most dedicated rely on a temporary patchwork of nonimmigrant visas to stay and foster their ideas. Business leaders should further push lawmakers to improve the immigration process and encourage a “startup visa” that will allow immigrants’ long history of entrepreneurship to flourish.
Russ Leimer is the co-founder of CitizenPath.com: online, do-it-yourself immigration services designed by attorneys and backed up with live customer support. CitizenPath simplifies immigration paperwork related to green card applications, renewals, U.S. citizenship and a variety of other services.