Rep. Polis pushes for ‘Startup’ immigrant visas
Boulder Daily Camera/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado
BOULDER, Colo. – Last summer, Kevin Mann came to Boulder from the United Kingdom with a startup and a 90-day visa.
His idea – software that transforms publishing materials, notably comic books, into digital media – landed Mann’s company among a handful of participants in the Boulder-based TechStars, a startup boot camp program. That company, now known as Graphic.ly, has since raised more than $1 million, is growing its local work force and its reach across the comic book industry.
Mann, however, remains in the United Kingdom. His visa expired on the last day of the 2009 TechStars session.
“Now, the only way to get him over here is we have to, in essence … hire the founder of the company,” said Micah Baldwin, a TechStars mentor who joined Graphic.ly as its chief executive officer.
Mann’s situation is something some technology investors – a well-known Boulder venture capitalist among them – want to change.
During the past few months, Boulder investor and TechStars co-founder Brad Feld and a handful of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have lobbied for measures to make it easier for foreign-born entrepreneurs to start U.S.-based companies.
Lawmakers very well could hear some of those efforts and arguments this year. As U.S. Congress members went back to work last week, one of the bills on target to be tackled this session is a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a new class of immigrant investor “Startup Visa” initiative.
Two of the 2009 TechStars participating teams were comprised of foreign-born founders. During the summer, Feld said he and others struggled to find ways to get those companies visas, adding that all of the proposed approaches were “expensive, risky and tiresome.”
The “young, talented entrepreneurs … are in the final process of raising their first rounds of financing. Post-financing, they will be creating U.S.-based high-tech jobs,” Feld wrote in an e-mail. “If they are successful, they will create a lot of jobs.
“Plus, they are young, so they will do this multiple times in their lifetime.”
Being thousands of miles apart has made the day-to-day work very hard, stressful and costly, Mann said, adding that a lot of time also is spent on setting up video conferencing between the 10-employee U.K. office and the Boulder headquarters.
“It would be much easier for the company, if I were there,” he said.
Taking it to Washington
The Startup Visa push gained further steam last month when Boulder entrepreneur-turned-lawmaker Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, incorporated the visa-reform initiatives into House of Representatives Bill 4259. Those initiatives subsequently were included in the proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009.
Polis said his efforts have fared well across party lines, noting support from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Republican.
Polis’ proposed initiatives include modifying the EB-5 immigrant investor visa, which is one of five employer-sponsored visas. To qualify for an EB-5 visa, one must start a business or invest in a business, invest at least $500,000 in that business and create jobs for at least 10 U.S. workers.
Polis hopes to increase the number of EB-5 Regional Center Program visas – for foreign investors or entrepreneurs that create at least five jobs for U.S. citizens or legal immigrants – to 10,000 from 3,000; and create a new class of eligibility called Startup Visas.
Foreign-born individuals’ eligibility requirements for the Startup Visas include:
– A $250,000 investment from a venture capital firm that is primarily based in the United States or a $100,000 angel investment from a U.S. citizen or legal immigrant or from an entity that has made at least five investments totaling at least $250,000 during the past three years.
– Create at least five jobs in “targeted employment” areas that include rural places or areas with high unemployment; or create at least 10 jobs otherwise.
– Generate a profit and at least $1 million in revenue.
Efforts are under way to bring a similar initiative before the Senate, Polis said, adding that discussions on immigration reform and Startup Visas could occur around the March-April time frame.
“It’s simply a good idea that will create jobs in America without raising taxes,” Polis told the Camera.
Lawmakers should be mindful about new immigration policies, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit think tank with a “pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision.”
“I think there is a much stronger case to be made for these kinds of visas with companies … than to expand family-based immigration or guest worker programs,” she said. “There’s a much more obvious benefit to the United States.”
However, Vaughan said, proposals such as the Startup Visa would be appropriate as a replacement for current employment immigration policies and that it would have to be carefully structured.
“As long as it’s properly managed and includes appropriate safeguards against fraud,” she said.
Others argue the latest proposals, including Startup Visas, are just “marketing campaigns” in an ongoing skirmish to add more foreign labor, said John Miano, founder of the Programmers Guild, a nonprofit organization of IT workers that advocates against outsourcing and H1-B work visas.
“This battle’s been fought, to open the cracks every which way,” he said.
Lobbyists, he added, have chipped away at the nation’s labor protections, making the system “needlessly complicated.”
“This whole proposal should just die like several of the others have,” he said, adding that the nation’s immigration system “needs a complete, top-to-bottom overhaul.”
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