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On immigration, should America be more like Canada?

April 3, 2013: 10:05 AM ET

As the U.S. grapples with immigration reform, its northern neighbor launches a new program designed to lure entrepreneurs from around the world.

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FORTUNE -- Throughout history, first-generation Americans have had a solid track record of starting some of the biggest U.S. companies. To name a few: Intel (INTC), Google (GOOG), and eBay (EBAY).

Now as debates over U.S. immigration policy reform continue, it's worth asking if the U.S should take Canada's lead. On Monday, our northern neighbor launched a new visa program designed to lure the best and the brightest entrepreneurs from around the world. It's similar to other start-up visas that have recently been created or revamped in places like Australia, Chile, and the U.K. The big difference is that unlike most countries that make participants wait a few years to see how many jobs their startups create, Canada's new visa grants permanent residency from the start.

Coincidentally, the launch came the same day the U.S. kicked off application season for skilled-foreign worker visas. Unlike previous years since the financial crisis, petitions for H-1B visas have risen sharply. It's a sign of an improving economy but also a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of talented foreigners hungry to live and work in the U.S.

Many expect the quota for H-1Bs will be exhausted for this year's application season by Friday. Which is a shame, given that more hiring would likely spur other jobs for the broader economy.

MORE: Billionaires can't break the Beltway logjam

To be sure, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and others worry about the U.S. visa program. They question whether foreign workers are displacing qualified Americans. But many in the tech industry -- one of the most powerful players in the immigration debate -- would argue that there aren't enough engineers, programmers, and the like to fill U.S. jobs.

In January, lawmakers introduced a bill that would increase H-1B visas for skilled workers from a maximum of 65,000 to 115,000 a year, and possibly to as many as 300,000 a year. If passed, the bill would help keep many more skilled foreigners from leaving the U.S., but it would also fall short of keeping them from eventually returning home or potentially starting companies (and creating new jobs) elsewhere.

Under Canada's new startup visa, foreign entrepreneurs would need to secure $75,000 from investors to enter the country. The U.S. has proposed a similar program, but the idea has yet to take off. The latest efforts came in February when lawmakers introduced the Startup Act, a bill that would issue visas to founders who raise $100,000 for new ventures that hire at least two employees within a year and at least five in the following three years.

It remains to be seen where the bill goes: Last May, lawmakers weren't that excited about a similar bill, Startup Act 2.0. And of course, Congress faces the bigger monster of comprehensive immigration reform.

MORE: Are we throwing in the towel on American workers?

"The question now is will the Startup Act be a part of the conversation?" asks Audrey Singer, senior fellow who evaluates U.S. immigration policy at Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think tank.

Singer is currently working on a paper about the federal government's EB-5 program targeted to foreigners who can invest at least $500,000 in U.S.-based businesses. If their money creates at least 10 jobs, then they can receive a permanent green card. In recent years, there's been an uptick in demand for EB-5s, Singer adds.  Much of the rise comes from Chinese investors -- many of whom have accumulated much of their wealth from China's booming real estate market. The trend is likely to continue in the coming years as the Chinese look to invest their newfound wealth.

In the end, it's clear foreigners have an interest in doing more business in the U.S. The question is, however: Is America willing -- and more importantly, able -- to compete with the rest of the world? Canada included.

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

Email | @ninhaitseng | RSS

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