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The most powerful lever President Joe Biden can pull to catalyze entrepreneurship in the U.S. is immigration reform.
That’s according to two experts from the venture capital community who spoke at a virtual discussion co-hosted by GeekWire and Lane Powell about the Biden administration and the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
When asked about the one thing the government could do to spur more startups, National Venture Capital Association CEO Bobby Franklin and venture capitalist Heather Redman, of Flying Fish Partners, both turned to immigration issues.
“For me, it’s the startup visa,” Franklin said. “I think that would go a long way because we need more startup activity in order to have more successful startups, which bring new jobs, economic activity, and innovation.”
The startup visa has long been coveted by Democrats and the tech industry because there currently is no real avenue for a foreign-born entrepreneur to launch and grow a new company in the U.S.
President Barack Obama included a startup visa category in his comprehensive immigration reform bill, but Congress failed to pass it. With Biden in the White House, Franklin and other immigration reform advocates are hopeful the visa category could be reborn.
In the meantime, there is a work-around known as the International Entrepreneur Rule. The Obama-era policy allows immigrant entrepreneurs to live in the U.S. for two to five years if their startups meet certain benchmarks of success. The Trump administration sought to rescind the rule but those efforts were blocked in part by a lawsuit brought by the National Venture Capital Association.
Franklin said the International Entrepreneur Rule is likely to take effect under Biden but he stressed it “is not the same thing as a startup visa.”
Redman worries that the startup visa and other tech industry goals may become bogged down in the administration’s broader immigration reform priorities.
“I worry about this in the Biden administration, that our desire to fix the other parts of immigration and to have a more humanitarian approach to immigration — that I definitely support — will slow us down on thinking about the economic aspects of immigration for the country,” she said.
When asked how federal government could increase startup activity, Redman said: “I’d like to see the stapling of the green card to graduates in STEM fields.”
Like international entrepreneurs, foreign-born students who graduate from American universities don’t have many options for remaining in the country. The immigration reform bill Biden unveiled last month includes a provision that makes it easier for foreign-born STEM graduates to remain in the U.S. and another that lifts some per-country limits on worker green cards, which have resulted in years-long backlogs.
But the bill is light on tech priorities, focusing instead on the pressing needs of undocumented immigrants and precarious programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
To get the progressive wing of the Democratic party on board with immigration policies designed for economic and entrepreneurial benefits, Redman says the startup community needs to evolve.
“The more we can elevate BIPOC folks, the more we can elevate women, the more we can elevate immigrants … as our standard bearers for what a good entrepreneur looks like, the more we will be able to cross that chasm with the progressive wing of the party and help them understand that we’re all in this together,” Redman said.
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