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The business of immigration: America’s push to stay ahead

Posted on December 24, 2011
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Immigrant innovators have always played a major role in growing the American economy – from the

Russian-born Sergey Brin (founder of technology giant Google) to the Spanish-born Prudencio and Carolina Unanue (founders of Goya, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States) — and the U.S. government wants to keep it that way.

Startup America, a White Houseled initiative to reduce barriers and accelerate growth for America’s job-creating entrepreneurs, aims to continue to harvest such entrepreneurial talent and ensure that America stays at the top of the global investment economy.

The Obama Administration has taken steps that include allowing more talented science and math graduates to stay in the country longer and making it easier to start a company in the United States. Just last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a new “Entrepreneurs in Residence” initiative that will draw on the skills of business experts to fully realize the job-creating potential of current immigration laws

Also, earlier this month, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. If it becomes law, the bill would not increase the number of available visas, but instead redistribute a greater portion of them to countries with large populations and excess demand.

A Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Advocacy report from November 2008 says that immigrants made up 12.2 percent of the total U.S. workforce and owned 10.8 percent of all businesses with employees. The total business income generated by immigrant business owners was $67 billion, representing 11 .6 percent of all business income in the United States. Also, immigrants are nearly 30 percent more likely to start a business than are non-immigrants.

Today, many plan to do just that.

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Agro Farma, Inc. and producer of Chobani yogurt – now a $700 million business – is one success story and example of an SBA loan recipient. With an SBA 504 loan, Hamdi was able to purchase a Kraft Foods plant in August 2005, and by 2007 he had shipped his first order of Chobani yogurt. Less than four years later, Agro Farma has grown to 670 employees running three full-time shifts and producing 1.2 million cases of Chobani weekly.

Hamdi’s story is a success story but many others from coast to coast are trying to overcome the existing barriers in the immigration system in order to stay here and create good jobs for U.S.-born Americans. Start up America’s impact The Washington Post recently reported the story of Chia-Pin Chang, a Taiwan native who obtained a doctoral degree in computer engineering from George Washington University and along with a faculty mentor co-founded OptoBioSense to develop a medical device that can quickly and cheaply measure the concentration of uric acid in a person’s body.

As with any new company, Opto- BioSense faces many start-up related challenges, such as patents under review, trials to run, federal regulators to appease and a nagging need for capital. But the company’s biggest hurdle isn’t business-related. Chang’s soonto expire student visa will force him to leave the country and likely close the business come February unless he can secure an employer-sponsored green card.

“The difficulty I am finding when I try to find any jobs here is it requires either U.S. citizenship or permanent residence, which I’m not qualified [for] right now,” Chang said. “As you know, the U.S. economy is not quite good so most domestic companies, they try to help American people, so actually they are less willing to sponsor the foreigner.”

Like other entrepreneurs who have been forced out of the United States, Chang could take his company with him and license the intellectual property he developed from the university.

This scenario could deprive the United States of future tax revenue and jobs should his product reach its target market of 45 million patients annually.

“I thought about it, but I would be creating jobs and spiking the economy in Taiwan, rather than in the United States where I got my advanced degree from,” said Chang, who told The Washington Post that he would prefer to stay here.

Chang would be a direct beneficiary of the immigration law components of the Startup America initiative.

Fairness for High-Skilled

Immigrants Act: Hope for bipartisanship

Tamar Jacoby, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and president of Immigration Works USA, a national federation of small-business owners working for better immigration laws, says that the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act is nothing like the comprehensive overhaul Congress has been debating for years but that it still has its benefits.

“It makes only a small, surgical tuck in the nation’s complex immigration code, phasing out quotas on the number of legal permanent residents who can be admitted in any given year from a single country. But this small change could have significant consequences, for thousands of immigrants and for the politics of immigration,” Jacoby explained.

According to Jacoby, the per-country caps that would be eliminated by the bill are among the most absurd and cumbersome features of the U.S. immigration system. Under current law, thousands of foreigners are approved each year to enter the U.S. as legal permanent residents, some sponsored by employers who need their skills, others by family members who arrived before them and became citizens.

But this approval is not enough to guarantee a visa. Instead, approved candidates get in line and wait for their number to come up under the annual cap for their countries. And because until now visas were allotted equally to all countries, no matter how big or small, candidates from big countries with strong ties to the United States have often waited years. Backlogs have gotten so bad that workers from India, for example, currently face waits of 70 years — in other words, many never get visas — and family members from Mexico wait more than a decade.

“Phasing out the caps would dramatically reduce waits for many of the highly skilled workers America needs to remain a globally competitive knowledge economy. American companies will find it easier to hire researchers, engineers and other top talent from the big countries that produce most of the brainpower they rely on to do business,” Jacoby noted, adding, “The U.S. will become a more attractive destination for foreign innovators and entrepreneurs. And they in turn will help create jobs for Americans, a much-needed boost for economic recovery.”

She also explained that the bill would also help family members of immigrants who have become citizens. Though the country caps for family based visas are not eliminated, they would be expanded, with the maximum that can go to any one country rising from 7 to 15 percent of the total. This could significantly shorten the waits for spouses and children of immigrants from countries that send large numbers of newcomers to the United States — Mexico, the Philippines, India and China, among others. And by making it easier for people to enter the country legally, the bill could potentially make a dent in the illegal flow.

Many immigration reformers wish the measure went further, not just easing and eliminating country caps but also expanding the number of legal permanent residence permits, or green cards, issued every year.

Some, like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), have other issues with the bill: “I have concerns about the impact of this bill on future immigration flows and am concerned that it does nothing to better protect Americans at home who seek high-skilled jobs during this time of record high unemployment.”

Still, Jacoby believes that the House bill represents a huge political breakthrough.

“Lawmakers in Washington have been trying to fix the system for a decade. Democrats and Republicans have been unable to agree on an approach. The politics of immigration have grown so polarized that it sometimes seems Democrats own the issue, while few Republicans will touch it. The process that produced the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act was very different.”

The bill was proposed by Republicans. With some unusually nimble negotiating, its GOP sponsors persuaded influential pro-immigration Democrats to work with them.

The resulting bipartisan measure was approved overwhelmingly, by a vote of 389 to 15. And although it has encountered some obstacles in the Senate, it has broad bipartisan support there as well.

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