12:01am

Tue August 23, 2011
Economy

Advocates Urge Easier Visa Policies To Boost Startups

As the economy continues to sputter, many policymakers are looking to entrepreneurs to create new jobs. And many foreign-born, highly skilled entrepreneurs want to come to the United States and stay here, but immigration laws and policies haven't made that easy.

In an effort to change that the White House recently announced more flexible policies for granting visas. But many innovation experts say the changes aren't enough.

Andrew Nicol is a young entrepreneur who was born in Australia and attended law school in the U.S. After graduation he got an employer-sponsored visa that allowed him to work in New York. But when Nicol wanted to leave his day job and start a company, he was stymied. Leaving his job meant losing his visa.

So Nicol decided to go to Chile.

"I'm basically leaving New York to come to Santiago to start a business that targets New York consumers — just because it's so much easier to do it from here and there is so much more support from the government here," he says.

'Taking Advantage Of America's Stupidity'

Nicol is participating in a program called Start-Up Chile, a government-sponsored effort that offers entrepreneurs visas and $40,000 to help start their businesses.

"Chile has been taking advantage of American stupidity," says Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley, where he studies the economic impact of immigrant entrepreneurs.

"The entire immigration system is a big mess," he says. "There are thousands of entrepreneurs who want to start companies in America but can't get visas."

The White House agrees that too many highly skilled entrepreneurs are being shut out, and its new visa rules aim to address that by increasing the number of startup visas.

But Wadhwa says the changes don't go far enough.

"There are 150 companies here right now," he says during a Start-Up Chile event. "Amazing, amazing companies in almost every area you can think of."

Those entrepreneurs moved to Chile before the U.S. changed its visa policy, and they're unlikely to move to the U.S. now.

Wadhwa says he spoke to about 50 people at the event and at least half of them said if they been able to go to America they would have started their companies there.

Scarce And Valuable Talents

Immigrant entrepreneurs, particularly those with highly specialized skills are in high demand worldwide. Rob Atkinson, who heads a Washington D.C. think tank focused on innovation and competitiveness, says the U.S. needs to do more to lure them here.

"These are scarce talents, and they are valuable talents," he says. "And they end up leading to the creation of a lot of growth companies that end up hiring thousands and thousands of workers."

Or even tens of thousands of workers. In research done while at Duke University, Wadhwa found that between 1995 and 2005 roughly half of all the startups in Silicon Valley were launched by immigrants.

Many innovation and economic development experts are now advocating passage of legislation called the Startup Visa Act. And Robert Litan, vice president of research and policy at the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurship, is among them.

"My advice to our elected officials would be: The country is in trouble. Let's not worry about the politics of the larger immigration debate, and let's at least bite off what we can chew now and get those jobs here," Litan says.

Immigration reform is, of course, politically charged and the broad changes being advocated require congressional action. But that doesn't seem likely, so the more modest reform efforts will have to suffice, at least for now.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.