Bobbie Johnson in San Francisco 

Silicon Valley campaign seeks startup visa for foreign entrepreneurs

Group wants US residency to be offered in return for starting up a company
  
  

Silicon Valley veterans are calling for new laws to encourage more technology entrepreneurs to move to America, as the region attempts to hold on to its crown as the world's hi-tech hotspot.

Reform of US immigration laws is one of the hot topics facing the Obama administration. The internet campaign, which has the support of a range of entrepreneurs and investors, is encouraging the White House to back a "startup visa" giving hi-tech entrepreneurs US residency in return for starting a company.

The American technology industry, particularly in northern California, has long relied on bringing in talent from overseas. A quarter of American technology companies have foreign-born founders, and more than half of all Silicon Valley businesses were founded by immigrants.

The Founders Visa campaign argues that regulations stifle innovation by forcing students to return to their home countries after completing their studies, or by issuing employment-based visas that lock people into working for large companies.

Its proposals would modify an immigrant visa that is reserved for people who invest at least $500,000 in the US and make it easier for hi-tech entrepreneurs to set up businesses.

"We want to make it easier for entrepreneurs to come to the US, start new businesses, and most importantly create more jobs," says the group on its website.

"Instead of the visa going to an investor, a startup company founder or entrepreneur who receives a minimum amount of private investment could qualify."

Brad Feld, a hi-tech financier with the Foundry Group and one of those behind the campaign, said progress had been made in recent months - but that the proposal had to compete with other heavyweight issues being tackled by the Obama administration.

"Shortly after I started talking to people in Congress about this it became clear that this wouldn't be a 2009 legislative issue given the massive financial and healthcare reform issues being worked on in Congress," he wrote recently.

Feld said the group planned to push harder early this year "with the goal of having this be part of whatever immigration reform activity happens next year – especially in the context of a renewed push for job creation activity in the US".

Immigration reform is becoming a hot topic again in US politics, after failed attempts to overhaul the system under George Bush.

More than 90 congressional representatives have already put their names to an immigration reform bill that includes the proposed modifications.

One of them, the Illinois Democrat congressman Luis Gutierrez, said: "Lots of special interests play the immigrant blame game every day because they like things the way they are and don't see a need for change. Right now, our visa quotas are determined by politics, not by labour and economic need."

Campaigners have pointed to a dramatic slowdown in applications for some visas, particularly the H-1B, traditionally used by American businesses to recruit high-level staff from foreign countries.

Each year the number of applicants is capped at 65,000. In 2008 the allocation was filled in just a few days, but last year it took more than nine months.

 

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