We are in the entrepreneurship business. As a startup founder and director of a program that accelerates the growth of innovative companies across the United States, we are no strangers to the challenges that entrepreneurs face on their road to success. Increasingly, our country’s broken immigration system is presenting a bigger hurdle to Southern California companies looking to grow their businesses.
Our window into the world of startups has also given us a front-row seat to the impediments to innovation caused by our outdated visa system.
Consider Chen, a South African citizen and Yale graduate, who waited two years to receive a temporary visa that allowed her to stay in the United States for only three years. In that time, she founded a rapidly growing company that now employs more than 30 people in downtown.
A report from the Partnership for a New American Economy says that because of our broken immigration system and the inability for U.S. employers to fill jobs set aside for high-skilled immigrants in 2007 and 2008, the U.S. economy lost out on more than 400,000 jobs for both U.S. and foreign-born workers in computer-related fields in 2009, as well as the tax revenue that would have accompanied that employment growth.
We are part of a group of committed leaders in the L.A. technology industry who believe immigration reform is a fundamental issue to the growth of our industry and economy, and for the strength of our communities. As members of the FWD.us Innovation Council in Los Angeles, we advocate for policies that keep the American Dream achievable in the 21st century, and immigration reform is the cornerstone of that agenda.
As we head into the general election, we are keeping immigration reform at the top of our minds.
We urge voters, presidential candidates, and members of Congress to support programs that will retain the talent critical to keeping us globally competitive into the future. This type of reform is a moral imperative for our country because stories such as ours – and those of our fellow council members – are not rare.
This year, for example, more than 250,000 people applied in a lottery system for H-1B employer-sponsored visas for which there are only 85,000 slots (and 20,000 of those are allotted to applicants with a graduate degree). In fact, a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center says that the number of foreign students studying in the United States grew by 72 percent between 1999 and 2013, and more than half of all doctoral graduates in STEM fields were foreign students. Unfortunately, their options to stay in the United States after graduation to pursue their own ventures remain limited. Because of this, many of these students return to their native countries with their education and ideas.
In 2014, the White House announced its intention to begin the Entrepreneur Pathways Program, which would allow foreign-born entrepreneurs the opportunity to come to the United States, or stay after graduating from a U.S. university or accelerator program, and start a company. Programs such as this would greatly ease many of the pain points caused by the U.S. immigration system because it creates clear criteria for immigrant entrepreneurs who want to come here, grow their businesses, and stay here legally. We strongly encourage the White House to announce finalized rules soon, and the public to support them.
While programs such as this one are important, we need to do more to ensure our best and brightest talent stays in the United States. The H-1B visa program – which allows employers to hire specialized talent to meet their needs – is critical to keeping America innovative and competitive for all workers. According to a study by conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, if the United States had raised the H-1B cap to 195,000 visas available in 2008, tax revenue, both payroll and income, could have increased by as much as $10 billion by this year. Additionally, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy report, for every 100 jobs filled by an H-1B recipient, 183 jobs are created for U.S.-born workers.
This election presents an important moment to get immigration reform right in the next Congress, and we urge the American public and our elected officials to adopt policies and programs that will keep our economy competitive, our communities strong, and our talent here.
Lina Chen is chief executive of Nix Hydra, a downtown startup that builds video games popular with women. Cody Simms is executive director of the Americas for Techstars, a network of accelerators across the world, including two programs in Los Angeles.
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