Lawmakers praise visa programs to attract foreign investors, entrepreneurs

Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration subpanel praised two visa programs at a hearing Wednesday they said could create thousands of jobs in the United States.

The proposals are backed by many tech companies, which rely heavily on foreign investors and entrepreneurs.

The EB-5 investor visa program aims to attract foreign investment to the United States but is set to expire in 2012. The second program, the start-up visa program, is part of a bill introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and would encourage entrepreneurs to start their businesses in the United States.

The investor visa program allows almost 10,000 immigrants to receive permanent residency every year if they invest between $500,000 and $1,000,000 in a new business and create at least 10 full-time jobs for American workers.

"This is something we could all rally behind," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. 

"And yet, the investor visa program is presently underutilized," he said. "The program has the potential to be a far larger job creator."

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith also praised the program.

"The number one job of Congress is to create jobs," the Texas Republican said. "The investor visa program plays a part in achieving that goal."

Lofgren's start-up visa proposal would give conditional residency to immigrants who obtain venture capital to start a business. If their business succeeds within two years, they would become permanent residents.

Lofgren said unlike the EB-5 program, which would create jobs by "attracting wealthy immigrant investors," her start-up visa plan would attract "immigrant entrepreneurs with significant intellectual capital."

She cited a study that found 40 percent of publicly traded, venture-backed high-tech companies were started by immigrants.

"The start-up visa program has the potential to create those much-needed jobs and make sure that the next Google or Intel remains here in the United States," she said.

The Republicans expressed guarded support for the start-up visa proposal.

"While I am not prepared at this time to declare my support, this innovative proposal deserves Congress's serious consideration," Gallegly said.

Smith said that while America would benefit from attracting foreign entrepreneurs, he worried the program could be susceptible to fraud and abuse.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said the hearing set the table for immigration reforms aimed at job creation. 

"I think it's important that they're focusing on the idea that we need to have some emphasis on these folks that can have an immediate impact on our employment status and folks that, in a sense, give us a positive jolt to the economy," he said after the hearing.

Shervin Pishevar, an Iranian-born tech investor and entrepreneur, testified at the hearing to explain the role of immigrants in tech start-ups. After coming to the United States, he founded WebOS, an Internet-based operating system.

"Every day, the U.S. is losing out to other countries that are opening their doors to immigrants," he said.