America needs visa reform to stay competitive

It was on the shoulders of ambitious immigrants that America became the richest country in the world. Today, a convoluted myriad of immigration laws and requirements means that the world’s brightest minds are simply going elsewhere.

If America wants to attract successful, innovative hustlers back to the “home of the brave,” the first step will be visa reform. We need to replace our opaque, dead-end entrepreneur visa policy with a simple, painless and attractive one instead.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are — and always have been — the backbone of the U.S. economy. A 2012 study established that immigrants made up 25 percent of startup founders, even though only 13.7 percent of the population is foreign-born.

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Similarly, a 2018 study found that 55 percent of America’s billion-dollar start-ups, known as unicorns, were set up by immigrants. In fact, the combined value of the 50 unicorns founded by immigrants — $248 billion — is worth more than all the companies listed on the stock market in Argentina, Columbia, Peru, Portugal and Ireland. It is immigrants who are quietly fueling the American economy.

Indeed, if you have received a vaccine from Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech, then you have an immigrant entrepreneur to thank; they were all established or co-established by immigrant entrepreneurs. 

This is not a new phenomenon; this is the American origin story. America was built on the entrepreneurial dreams of those who made the tortuous journey from the “old world” in search of their fortune in the new one.

So why is it that immigrants seem to dominate the entrepreneurial field in the U.S.? One theory, suggested by Stanford’s Peter Vandor, is that these entrepreneurs are simply self-selecting; those with the most ambition and the highest tolerance for risk are those who are most likely to emigrate and become successful entrepreneurs. 

Being one of those entrepreneurs myself, I would certainly subscribe to this theory. I came to the U.S. from Egypt with extremely limited capital — and have managed to create a successful business that employs 85 people from all over the world.

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Immigrant entrepreneurs have an invaluable role to play in society; politicians and policymakers need to take note. They can provide jobs and fuel innovation, something that the U.S. economy desperately needs. In fact, 77 foreign-born immigrants have employed over 775,000 people. It is an immigrant entrepreneur who has re-invented the electric car and will send humans to Mars. In short, immigrant entrepreneurs are not to be under-estimated.

This has not been unnoticed by the U.S. government. The International Entrepreneur Parole program, established by Obama, scrapped under the overtly hostile Trump, and reinstated by Biden, does little to attract more entrepreneurs like me. This is because the program only ever grants an immigrant entrepreneur a maximum of 5 years in the country. This is simply illogical; who would bother to start a business if you couldn’t rely on permanent sponsorship at the end? This pushes crucial talent to simply go elsewhere, and they do.

At the moment, if an entrepreneur wants to achieve permanent residency in the U.S., they have to traverse the almost impossible immigration roadblocks and decipher the various visas, none of which were designed with them in mind. 

We could compare the U.S. system with, say, Canada’s entrepreneurial visa programme, which gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to achieve permanent residency, making it far easier to plan for a successful personal and professional life.

Estonia, for example, has the highest unicorn per-capita ratio in the world. With a comparatively tiny population of 1.3 million, the country has produced four unicorns; Skype, Playtech, Transferwise and Bolt. This is no accident; Estonia deliberately produced an aggressively seductive policy for entrepreneurs, including flexible corporate tax structures and an incredibly digitized civil service.

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The OECD has also pointed to Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand and Germany as some of the most attractive places for immigrant entrepreneurs. Yet when it comes to the U.S., the OECD has explicitly stated “The United States would rank among the top countries for highly-qualified workers and entrepreneurs, but is penalized by the fact that relatively few are able to obtain a visa.”

America is slowly leaking talent; In 2019, the number of immigrant entrepreneurs in the U.S. declined by 4,400, the only yearly drop since 2000. I fear that by the time the administration realizes that they are losing the brain war, it will be too late.

The American dream is the idea that anyone, regardless of where they were born, can attain success. Today, America’s visa system, mired in opaque complication and implicit xenophobia, is encouraging the exact opposite.

That’s why it’s time to establish a painless and attractive entrepreneur Visa system for ambitious new business owners like myself in the U.S. That way, America can maintain its position as the international beacon of opportunity and the home of innovation.

As it stands, if I were 25 now, I suspect I may well be typing this from Estonia, Dubai or Singapore. That would be a loss for me, and — I hope — a loss for America.

Ahmed Mady is the CEO and co-founder of Fab Glass and Mirror.