Startup Visa

Startups will gain from GOP's immigration pain

November 28, 2012: 1:50 PM ET

The big winners from this year's presidential election may be foreign-born entrepreneurs.

FORTUNE -- America's venture capitalists have spent the past several years begging Congress to make it easier for foreign-born entrepreneurs to enter the United States. The proposal is called Startup Visa, and finally may be on the verge of becoming law. Not on its merits (which are many), but because of electoral politics.

There have been a few different versions of Startup Visa floated, but the general idea would be to provide immigrant entrepreneurs with a two-year visa if they are able to find a qualified U.S. investor willing to invest a minimum of $100,000 in their startup. To keep the visa past the two years, the new company must have created at least five jobs and either (a) Raised at least $500,000 in additional funding, or (b) Be generating at least $500,000 in annual revenue.

Another provision would provide visas to entrepreneurs who started companies outside the U.S. that generated at least $100,000 in U.S. sales over the past 12 months. For such visas to be renewed after two years, the entrepreneur must have created at least three new U.S. jobs. Finally, startup visas could be extended to immigrant entrepreneurs in the U.S. on unexpired H-1B visas or who have certain types of graduate degrees, so long as they have at least $60,000 in assets (including more than $30,000 in annual income), and have secured at least a $20,000 commitment from a U.S. investor. Such entrepreneurs also would need to create three jobs over a two-year period, and either raise another $100,000 in investment or generate at least $100,000 in revenue.

In other words, make it easier for foreign entrepreneurs to create new companies and new jobs in America. If you're wondering who would oppose such a commonsense program, the answer is... well, nobody.

Republicans support it. Democrats support it. The problem, however, has been that neither side has been willing to actually bring it to a vote.

Republicans have wanted Startup Visa to be voted on as a standalone bill, perhaps in coordination with other legal immigration reforms like increasing the number of available H-1B visas. Democrats have refused, insisting that it be part of a more comprehensive immigration bill that addresses both legal and illegal immigration. And since the GOP interest in illegal immigration hasn't extended beyond building "the dang fence," Startup Visa has gone nowhere fast.

What changed this month, however, was that Republicans got steamrolled at the polls by growing numbers of Latino voters. So much so that several GOP leaders have conceded that they finally need to pass a comprehensive bill. Maybe not one that includes broad amnesty, but at least some version of the Dream Act, family reunification measures and a series of legal immigration reforms like Startup Visa.

"Before the election I thought there was zero chance of Startup Visa becoming law," says Vivek Wadhwa, a Silicon Valley academic who has long championed the idea. "But then Republicans got their asses kicked, and they now know they need to do something about immigration."

Jennifer Dowling, head of federal policy for the National Venture Capital Association, adds: "We're certainly heading into 2013 with a little momentum due to the election results, and I'm hoping that the ground has really shifted."

Fingers crossed...

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