Making U.S. Visa Programs Work for Tech Entrepreneurs

Posted by: John Tozzi on February 22, 2012

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Entrepreneurs, tech executives, and venture capitalists have long complained that America’s visa rules keep aspiring entrepreneurs who lack U.S. passports from starting companies in the U.S. Now immigration authorities are reviewing those rules to see if they can make them work better for entrepreneurs.

We’re not talking about creating a startup visa or changing the number of people the U.S. lets into the country under various programs. No one expects this Congress to pass broader immigration reform. But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says it wants to make sure its existing system is realistic for high-growth companies.

The agency is hosting an online summit today to discuss how immigration policy affects entrepreneurs. Then five business and academic leaders from the private sector will work with immigration authorities to review visa laws and make sure they “provide pathways that are clear, consistent, and aligned with business realities,” Stephanie Ostapowich, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an email. (The agency calls these “entrepreneurs in residence” and hasn’t yet announced who they are.)

The current system hamstrings foreign-born entrepreneurs, says Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher at Duke University (among others) participating in the summit. “Silicon Valley is bleeding right now,” he says, with high-skilled immigrants returning to start companies in China, India, Brazil, or other countries because of barriers to staying in America. (Wadhwa is an occasional columnist for Businessweek.com.)

For example, Wadhwa says the current rules prohibit startups from sponsoring visas for their founders. He also notes that immigration authorities sometimes consider companies with no revenue or those not selling physical goods fraudulent, even though early-stage tech companies often have neither.

Wadhwa says Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, and other White House officials are hearing tech executives’ calls for an immigration fix. “These people have spent time in Silicon Valley,” he says. “Almost every CEO here has been ripping into them. They really get it now.”

Photograph by Aron Sueveg / Anzenberger/Redux

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What's it like to run your own company today? Entrepreneurs face multiple hurdles new and old, from raising capital and managing employees to keeping up with technology and competing in a global marketplace. In this blog, the Small Business channel's John Tozzi and Nick Leiber discuss the news, trends, and ideas that matter to small business owners. Follow them on Twitter @newentrepreneur.

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