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Many policymakers are looking to entrepreneurs to help create jobs in this tough economy, though immigration laws make that a challenge for the highly skilled, but foreign born. That's why the White House announced policy changes this month for granting visas to those looking to launch startups.
For instance, an applicant for a work visa will no longer necessarily have to have a job offer from an existing U.S. company. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports that for some entrepreneurs the changes may be too late.
WENDY KAUFMAN: Andrew Nicol is a young entrepreneur. He was born in Australia, but attended law school in the U.S. After graduation, he got an employer-sponsored visa that allowed him to work in New York. But when Nicol wanted to leave his day job and start a company, he was stymied. Leaving his job meant losing his visa. So Nicol decided to go to Chile, and that's where we found him.
Mr. ANDREW NICOL: I'm basically leaving New York to come to Santiago to start a business that targets New York consumers, just because it's so much easier to do it from here and because, you know, there's so much more support from the government here.
KAUFMAN: Nicol is participating in a program called Start-Up Chile. It's a government-sponsored effort which offers entrepreneurs visas and $40,000 to help them start their business.
Mr. VIVEK WADHWA (University of California Berkeley): Chile has been taking advantage of American stupidity.
KAUFMAN: That's Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies the economic impact of immigrant entrepreneurs. And when we tracked him down he didn't mince words.
Mr. WADHWA: The entire immigration system is a big mess. There are thousands of entrepreneurs who want to start companies in America who can't get visas.
KAUFMAN: The White House agrees too many highly skilled entrepreneurs are being shut out, and its new visa rules aim to address that by increasing the number of entrepreneurs who can come to the U.S. and making it easier for entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs who are already here to stay.
But speaking to us from a Start Up Chile event in Santiago, which he helped to create, Vivek Wadhwa says the changes don't go far enough.
Mr. WADHWA: There are 150 companies here right now. Amazing, amazing companies in almost every area you can think of.
KAUFMAN: These entrepreneurs moved to Chile before the U.S. changed its visa policy, but they're unlikely to go to the U.S. now.
Mr. WADHWA: I've spoken to about 50 people today. At least half of them said that if they had a chance to come to America they would've have been there today. They've would've been in Silicon Valley starting their companies there.
KAUFMAN: I wanted to talk to some of them.
Mr. WADHWA: I can get a whole bunch of people on the phone if you want me to.
KAUFMAN: So I spoke with entrepreneurs from Australia, Italy. And from Brazil, Natalia Monteriro.
Ms. NATALIA MONTERIRO (Entrepreneur): My project is Zugy - a safe search engine for kids.
KAUFMAN: None of their projects seemed like rocket science, but they all had plans to create jobs.
Immigrant entrepreneurs, particularly those with highly specialized skills, are in high demand worldwide. Rob Atkinson, who heads a Washington, D.C. think tank focused on innovation and competitiveness says that we need to do more to lure them here.
Mr. ROB ATKINSON (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation): These are scarce talents, and they're valuable talents. And they end up leading to the creation of a lot of growth companies that end up hiring thousands and thousands of workers.
KAUFMAN: Or even tens of thousands of workers. In research done while he was at Duke University, Wadhwa found that between 1995 and 2005 roughly half of all the startups in Silicon Valley were started by immigrants.
Many innovation and economic development experts are now advocating passage of legislation called the Startup Visa Act. Robert Litan of the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurship is among them.
Mr. ROBERT LITAN (Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurship): My advice to our elected officials would be: The country's in trouble. Let's not worry about the politics of the larger immigration fight. Let's at least bite off what we can chew now and let's get those jobs here.
KAUFMAN: But immigration reform is politically charged. And the broad changes being advocated by many require congressional action. Since that doesn't seem likely, the more modest reform efforts will have to suffice, at least for now.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.