Finally a Sensible Government Visa Policy

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While Washington continues to dither on the unemployment crisis, it's nice to know that not all job-creating policies are subject to the circus of Congress. Sometimes all it takes is an agency thinking a bit creatively on how it can help put Americans back to work - in this case, by getting out of the way.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) did exactly that recently when it announced a policy shift to attract more entrepreneurial immigrants to the United States. As Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a press release announcing the changes, "The United States must continue to attract the best and brightest from around the world to invest their talents, skills, and ideas to grow our economy and create American jobs."

Well said. What's taken so long?

For years, the visa policies for skilled workers have made little sense, insofar as those policies are meant to benefit the United States. For instance, an H1-B visa allows a highly skilled immigrant to work for a U.S. company, but not for his or her own U.S. company. CIS has now "reinterpreted" this policy, so that immigrants on H1-B visas can start their own businesses - and work for them - as long as there is some type of oversight board with hiring and firing decisions.

CIS also reduced the regulatory hassle confronting immigrant entrepreneurs with advanced degrees applying for the so-called EB-2 visa.

By showing how their start-ups would serve the "national interest" immigrants will largely be able to bypass these onerous regulations - and get to the business of starting a business and creating jobs faster. In addition, CIS is looking at fast-tracking the process whereby an immigrant can obtain a permanent visa by investing $1 million in venture capital that will generate American jobs.

These are all great improvements, and while most Americans are probably unaware of the laborious visa process, immigrant entrepreneurs abroad are no doubt applauding these common-sense changes. Best of all, they don't require Congress to pass any new laws.

But what Americans should understand is just how important immigrant entrepreneurs are to our economic prosperity. As I recount in my recent book, The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream, a 2009 study from the Kauffman Foundation found that an immigrant was the chief executive or lead technologist in a quarter of the U.S. science and technology companies founded between 1995 and 2005. In 2005, the study notes, these companies generated $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 people.

Moreover, immigrants are simply very hard-working, entrepreneurial people.

A 2008 report from Intuit, Inc., reported that immigrant men start businesses at a rate that is 71 percent higher than native-born men, while immigrant women start businesses at a rate 57 percent higher than their native-born counterparts. As the Kauffman Foundation noted in a 2010 study, "without start-ups, there would be no net job growth in the U.S. economy". It's safe to assume that without immigrants, we would have a lot fewer start-ups.

It's not that Congress hasn't gotten the message. In fact, in the Senate, John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) have introduced the Startup Visa Act of 2011, which would reform our visa laws to take the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants into account. But given the contentious nature of immigration reform, and the tendency to tie any immigration bill to an overall reform plan, it's unlikely that Congress will pass anything anytime soon.

This is also a shame, because as welcome as CIS's "reinterpretation" is, it doesn't go far enough. There are nearly 1.2 million educated and skilled professionals waiting in line to gain permanent-resident status to the United States. But U.S. policy is to dole out around 120,000 visas per year for skilled immigrants, and no more than seven percent of these visas can go to any given country. When a third of those in line are from India, this policy makes no sense.

Moreover, the CIS changes don't do anything to fix our insane policy regarding immigrant students studying in the United States. Does it make any sense to train these students at the best institutions in the world, only to send them back home after earning their degrees, where they'll either wait in line with everyone else or simply start a business elsewhere? Talk about policies not in our "national interest."

That said, we should applaud CIS - and the Obama Administration - for the new changes. Making it easier for the world's best and brightest to build their lives in America is long overdue. Perhaps one day the immigration rhetoric will settle down and we can then sensibly address the remaining challenges.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing some 2,000 consumer electronics companies. 

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