Building Bipartisan Bridges in Congress for High-Skilled Immigration and Entrepreneurship

shutterstock_1211020Tomorrow, the House of Representatives will hold a hearing to discuss, “Enhancing American Competitiveness through Skilled Immigration.”  The hearing is likely to highlight both the bipartisan support for high-skilled immigration reform, and a series of new bills that would increase the supply of STEM visas.

At least three such bills are gaining a following: the Startup Act 3.0, the StartUp Visa Act of 2013, and the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013.  In different ways, each responds to a 2013 report which calls for new strategies to “ensure the existence of an abundant supply of skilled workers” by strengthening K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, university STEM education, and attracting highly-skilled foreign workers.

Built upon the previous Startup Act 2.0 and the recommendations contained in an August 2012 Kauffman Foundation report, Startup Act 3.0 includes provisions for an entrepreneur visa to spur job creation and economic growth. The four central components of Startup Act 3.0 seek to attract and retain entrepreneurial talent, encourage pro-growth policies, attract capital investments in startups, and spark increased innovation through the commercialization of taxpayer-funded university research. A 2013 report’s conservative estimates indicate that a Startup Visa for immigrant entrepreneurs could generate anywhere from 500,000 to 1.6 million jobs, at minimum, over the next ten years, representing 0.5 to 1.6 percent of GDP, or roughly $70 billion to $224 billion in economic gain.

Earlier this year, another bipartisan group of senators introduced the StartUp Visa Act of 2013, offering a different take on encouraging immigrant entrepreneurship. To qualify for this StartUp visa, the prospective immigrant entrepreneur must have appropriate financial backing and must implement commercial activities that will generate employment, revenue, or capital investment.

In addition to Startup Act 3.0 and the StartUp Visa Act of 2013, policy makers are also focusing on high-skilled immigrants and innovation with the introduction of the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, also known as the I-Squared Act. The purpose of the bill is to “amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to authorize additional visas for well-educated aliens to live and work in the United States, and for other purposes.” Specifically, the bill: addresses H-1B high-skilled visas by increasing the annual cap from 65,000 to 115,000 initially, and then establishing a market-based escalator for the cap to adjust up or down depending upon economic demands; establishes dual intent for student visas; reforms immigrant visa and green card caps and provides for a roll-over of unused employment-based visa numbers; and helps fund a U.S. STEM education and worker retraining initiative. Importantly, the bill also includes a protection for workers who are either terminated or who quit their job by allowing a 60 day extension of their visa to allow them an opportunity to find other employment.

While discussions around the many components of comprehensive immigration reform continue, bipartisanship on high-skilled immigration and immigrant entrepreneurship is growing, as these pieces of legislation suggest. The fact that immigrant entrepreneurs play a vital role in America’s innovation economy is not lost on policy-makers. Indeed, researchers reiterate the continued benefits to the United States by innovative immigrants who will undoubtedly “remain a critical asset for maintaining U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.”

Moving forward, one particular concern policy makers should keep in mind is to ensure legislation isn’t merely shifting visa numbers around or creating new visa categories at the expense of other immigration paths. Combined, however, these bills and Tuesday’s hearing reflect a growing awareness and consensus on the continuing need for the United States to efficiently attract and retain the best and brightest entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world. Reducing barriers to entrepreneurship and innovation, increasing employer access to highly qualified employees, and providing protections and portability for workers will help the U.S. strengthen its globally competitive advantage.

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