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Want jobs? Encourage immigration

By Amy M. Wilkinson, Special to CNN
November 27, 2011 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
Google employs 31,300 people. The company's co-founder, Sergey Brin, was born in Russia.
Google employs 31,300 people. The company's co-founder, Sergey Brin, was born in Russia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • To create jobs, U.S. must welcome foreign innovators, says Amy M. Wilkinson
  • Wilkinson: 40% of Fortune 500 companies were created by immigrants or their children
  • Current U.S. visa policy is discouraging innovators from coming here, Wilkinson says
  • We need an "entrepreneurs' visa" based on capital raised or revenues generated, she says

Editor's note: Amy M. Wilkinson is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Center for Business and Government and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is writing a book on global entrepreneurs.

Washington (CNN) -- If we want to create jobs in America, we must welcome foreign-born innovators. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of immigrant entrepreneurs yearning to breathe free": This is the message we need Lady Liberty to shine forth into the world.

Yet Ellis Island has put up a velvet rope line. To vital job generators, we are saying, "There's no room for you."

Inviting immigrants in to create jobs may seem counterintuitive, but the facts are clear. Immigrant-led innovation is key to creating U.S. jobs. According to statistics from Partnership for a New American Economy, 40% of Fortune 500 companies were created by immigrants or their children. Further, between 1995 and 2005, 25% of high-tech startups in the United States had at least one immigrant founder, and these companies have created more than 450,000 jobs.

Take Google. Russian-born Sergey Brin, together with U.S.-born Larry Page, built a search engine business that today employs 31,300 people. French-born eBay founder Pierre Omidyar cultivated 17,700 jobs, and Taiwanese-born Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, paved the way for today's 13,700 Yahoo employees.

Amy M. Wilkinson
Amy M. Wilkinson

Current U.S. visa policy, however, is thwarting would-be job generators from pursuing their aims within our borders. We cannot afford to expel these vital individuals.

Consider the case of Amit Aharoni, a Stanford Business School graduate. Despite having raised $1.65 million in venture capital and created nine jobs at his San Francisco startup CruiseWise.com, Aharoni, an Israeli national, received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denying his request for a visa. Not only that, the letter informed Aharoni that he had to leave the country immediately.

Relocating to Canada in October, Aharoni continued to conduct business meetings using Skype. Only after ABC "World News" made public his predicament did the U.S. agency reconsider and approve his visa petition.

This is good news for Aharoni and CruiseWise.com, but we must wonder: Whom else are we sending away?

"We want your talent" should be our slogan. Come and build your businesses in the United States. Don't move to Bangalore or Shanghai or Dubai or Moscow. Don't go to Istanbul or Shenzhen or Sao Paulo when we need you in the emerging markets of our own country in places like Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland. The point is that immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs, and our top priority should be to foster innovation ecosystems at home.

What can we do?

Let's start by awarding an "entrepreneurs' visa." Allowing bright individuals to pursue their dreams in our country won't steal away jobs but rather create opportunity for U.S. citizens.

Initially, applicants would be screened for temporary visas based on either outside capital they have raised or revenues generated from recorded U.S. sales. Green cards would be granted once these entrepreneurs had hired a minimum number of U.S. employees.

The revised Kerry-Lugar Startup Visa Act is a great start, though the bill imposes a cap on the number of visas granted. Why limit motivated, foreign-born entrepreneurs from creating companies in the United States?

Next, staple a green card to the diplomas of foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities. More than 60,000 foreign students graduate from U.S. universities with undergraduate or graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math each year. These fields are extremely valuable in developing America's innovation edge. Imagine the job-creating progress that could be unleashed if only we harnessed these minds.

It is important to realize that while the U.S. kicks immigrant innovators out, a number of other countries actively recruit entrepreneurs with special visas and funding. The United Kingdom, Singapore and Chile have visas for entrepreneurs. Chile even offers $40,000 in seed funding through a special program.

Restricting immigrant entrepreneurs in the United States is self-defeating. Companies will lose out to global competitors who recruit top talent regardless of country of origin. Innovative individuals will move their operations abroad to cultivate next ideas. The U.S. Treasury will lose billions of dollars in tax revenues as innovators domicile their businesses overseas. This does not need to happen.

It is not a question of if we should allow these innovative individuals to pursue their aims in our country, but why haven't we yet? With a 9% unemployment rate, there is no time to waste. Innovators create the jobs we need.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Wilkinson.

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