Obama Backs 'Startup Visas' For Foreign-Born Tech Entrepreneurs In Immigration Speech

Obama: Foreign-Born Tech Entrepreneurs Need 'Startup Visas'
President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to create a special visa category that allows foreign-born entrepreneurs who launch successful startups to remain in the country.

In a major address on immigration policy in Las Vegas, Obama touted the need for a "startup visa" that allows immigrants who found startups to live in the United States as long as they raise a minimum level of financing and employ a certain number of workers. They could "remain permanently" in the country if their startups continue to grow, he said.

"Right now there are brilliant students from all around the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities," Obama said. "They are earning degrees in the fields of the future like engineering and computer science. But once they finish school, once they earn that diploma, there's a good chance they'll have to leave our country."

Obama noted how the popular photo-sharing site Instagram was co-founded by an immigrant -- Brazilian entrepreneur Michel Krieger -- who studied in the United States and stayed after graduating. But the president said many other immigrants who study at elite American universities are unable to secure visas or permanent residency and are forced to launch their startups abroad.

"Right now in one of those classrooms there are students wresting with how to turn their big idea -- their Intel or Instagram -- into a big business," Obama said. "We're giving them all the skills they need to figure that out, but then we're going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in India or China or Mexico or someplace else. That's not how you grow new industries in America. That's how you give new industries to our competitors."

A startup visa could help foreign-born entrepreneurs like Asaf Darash. Last year, The Huffington Post detailed the story of Darash, an Israeli entrepreneur who faces deportation after studying at the University of California at Berkeley then launching a startup in San Francisco.

His story is not unique. For the first time, the number of immigrant-founded startups is in decline, as foreign-born entrepreneurs struggle to obtain a limited number of visas and green cards and decide to launch companies in other countries that offer perks to start businesses there, according to a report last year by the Kauffman Foundation.

In Congress, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill last year to create a startup visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs. But the bill failed to pass, and its prospects remain uncertain because changes to immigration policy remain politically controversial.

Opponents argue that temporary visas allow immigrants to take jobs away from capable Americans, depress wages and discourage American-born students from entering high-tech careers. But advocates argue that creating additional visas for immigrant entrepreneurs instead create more jobs by allowing foreign-born founders to grow their companies in the United States.

Obama's speech was praised by supporters of a startup visa.

His speech "shows that there is broad support to modernize our immigration system in a way that helps grow our economy and attract the world’s most talented and hardest-working," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is co-chair of the Partnership For A New American Economy, a coalition of mayors and business leaders who support immigration reform.

For years, immigrant entrepreneurs have propelled the growth of Silicon Valley, building some of the most successful tech companies in the world. Their companies have generated sizable economic benefits. Last year, engineering and technology companies founded in the United States employed about 560,000 workers and generated $63 billion in sales, according to Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University who researches high-tech immigration. About a quarter of those companies had at least one foreign-born founder.

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