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Immigrants Are the Lifeblood of U.S. Startups

Created: 13 July, 2012
Updated: 20 April, 2022
4 min read

By Yuri Vanetik

In a rare moment of genuinely bipartisan lawmaking, the president recently signed the JOBS Act into law. Short for “Jumpstart Our Business Startups,” JOBS will roll back some of the regulatory barriers that small and mid-sized entrepreneurial ventures face in their efforts to grow and go public.

This is a great victory for the American start-up community. Now, policymakers need to turn their attention to the hurdles in the way of talent acquisition.

No talent channel is more bogged down with needless and costly rules than the visa system for highly skilled immigrants.

Every year, thousands of foreign citizens with advanced degrees in science and engineering apply to become permanent residents in the United States. They want to work and contribute and have valuable ideas for new businesses.

Despite these undeniable facts, many educated and motivated foreigners are turned away or granted only temporary permission to live and work here. This bureaucratic quagmire is robbing American start-ups of talent, which is severely undercutting economic growth.

A December study from the National Foundation for American Policy found that almost half of the top 50 venture-funded firms in America were founded or co-founded by an immigrant. Out of these firms, 37 had at least one immigrant in a high-level management position.

Silicon Valley is filled with hot startups founded by foreigners.

The textbook-rental service Chegg was created by Indian Aayush Phumbhra and Briton Osman Rashid. Etsy — the incredibly successful online craft marketplace — is the brainchild of Swiss entrepreneur Haim Schoppik. The giant web publisher Glam Media was founded by Indians Samir Arora and Raj Narayan.

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The idea that these immigrants are “stealing” jobs from Americans is pure nonsense. The opposite is true. That same study found that top 50 immigrant-started companies created an average of 150 new jobs per company.

Likewise, researchers from the American Enterprise Institute found that between 2000 and 2007, for every additional 100 foreign workers coming into this country with an advanced “STEM” degree — science, technology, engineering, or math — an average of 262 new jobs were created for native-born U.S. citizens.

It’s no surprise that talented immigrants play such a vital role in the creation and expansion of American companies and the culture of entrepreneurialism that battens start-ups. They have a fresh perspective. They’re well positioned to find new ways to solve economic problems and create value.

But America is choking off the spigot of immigrant talent. The channel for them to enter this country legally is over-regulated, overly expensive, unpredictable, and deeply time-consuming.

H-1B visas, the type designated for highly skilled workers, expire after just three years. They’re only renewable once. The total number of H-1Bs allowed every year is capped at 66,000 (with very limited exemptions for foreigners who received a degree from an American graduate program). Moreover, the H-1B fee was recently raised by over 600 percent — from $320 to $2,000.

Visa restrictions are leading to reverse brain drain. Smart, ambitions foreigners come and study at America’s world-class institutions of higher education. After they graduate, they’re eager to work in this country, but they can’t get a permanent residence or a worker visa. Eventually, they give up and go elsewhere, taking their talents, training, ideas, and education with them.

Cristobal Conde is a Chile-born entrepreneur and former CEO of SunGard, a Fortune 500 software company. He’s said, “If I were to try to come to America today, the likelihood is I would be turned away.”

We need visa reform for highly skilled workers — and fast. Republican Representative Jeff Flake just reintroduced the STAPLE Act, (H.R. 399), which would exempt foreign students with an American Ph.D. degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics and a job offer in the United States from visa quotas. Passing this legislation is smart policy.

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Policymakers should also strengthen and expand the H-1B program; create a special “Startup Visa” for immigrants looking to create new companies in the United States, and increase the number of green cards for workers with advanced degrees.

Policymakers should also extend the EB-5 Visa program (currently set to expire in September) which provides green cards to foreign nationals who invest significant money in the United States. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has taken the lead on this important bipartisan initiative.

The JOBS Act will boost the American start-up sector. However, it’s just the first step. Now, lawmakers need to fix the country’s talent retention problem. That process starts by reforming the immigration system for highly skilled foreigners.

Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and philanthropist. He is the principal of Vanetik International, LLC and a national board member of Gen Next (

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