Obama's immigration reform plan: He should admit lots of super-immigrants, the highly educated, future entrepreneurs.

Commentary about business and finance.
May 10 2011 2:37 PM

Let in the Super-Immigrants!

The best way to improve the U.S. economy fast is to poach entrepreneurs from the rest of the world. So why do we make it so difficult for them to immigrate?

(Continued from Page 1)

Every once and a while, Congress decides to change the system to keep these motivated, educated, and valuable people around. This spring, for instance, Sens. John Kerry and Dick Lugar reintroduced the Startup Visa Act, designed to welcome in and keep foreign-born entrepreneurs.

The legislation provides a few new paths to permanent residency for entrepreneurs. For instance, a prospective immigrant could win a temporary visa if she raises at least $100,000 from a qualified investor for a new business. Her visa would become permanent if, within two years, her business created five jobs and raised $500,000 in additional investment, or had sales of $500,000. The bill also encourages entrepreneurs on temporary and education visas to stay, and foreign business owners to move and expand operations here.

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It is a good idea, but perhaps still too restrictive. For one, the Startup Visa has inflexible rules about sales, capital investment, and job creation. What if a foreign-born computer scientist created the next Google in her garage, but by the end of two years only had a few thousand dollars in investment and one other worker? Second, the bill does not recognize the importance of failure. Most new businesses don't make it off the ground. But many entrepreneurs try again, and some succeed the second or third or 20th time around. Better to keep those aspirational workers on our shores. Third, and most important, the bill does not actually expand the number of available visas, just 9,940 in the relevant program. It just makes them easier for entrepreneurs to get.

Will Obama's immigration reform bill be smarter? The White House is pushing the benefits of keeping highly skilled and educated immigrants in the United States. In a call with reporters yesterday, a White House senior official stressed the point. "Immigrants are major job creators," he said. "It makes little if any economic sense for us to train and educate the top entrepreneurs and job creators of the next generation or this generation, and then force them to leave to compete against us and create jobs elsewhere."

But the prospects of a comprehensive bill passing are not good, and the White House knows it. On the call with reporters, senior administration officials talked about trying to "elevate the debate," "lean into the issue," and "raise the dialogue." "Passing a bill" did not really figure into the conversation. Other politicians are more honest about it. "I'm not going to be disingenuous with the public," Rep. Luis Gutierrez told the Journal. "It's not going to happen."

Even if comprehensive reform does not pass, though, expanding programs for super-immigrants should. Traditionally, because giving highly skilled workers a way to stay in the United States is the least controversial part of immigration reform, Democratic politicians have refused to decouple the priorities. If you want the high-skill immigrants, you need to figure out how to deal with the millions of less-skilled and undocumented workers, mostly from Latin America. It is good political logic, perhaps, but awful economic logic. The country needs about 10 million jobs, and the rest of the world has hundreds of thousands of educated, motivated, smart workers who want to come to our shores, use our capital, and hire our workers.

Why not pick the low-hanging fruit?

Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.

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