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Entrepreneurs Wanted: The President’s Actions on Immigration

President Obama is committed to attracting the world’s best and brightest entrepreneurs to start the next great companies here in the US. That’s why creating a “startup visa” for foreign entrepreneurs is part of the President’s framework for commonsense immigration reform.

Immigrant entrepreneurs have always made extraordinary contributions to America’s economy, from Main Street to Silicon Valley. Immigrants started one of every four small businesses across the country. Immigrants and their children founded over 40 percent of companies in the Fortune 500—from GE and Ford to Google and Yahoo!—which at last count collectively employed over 10 million people and generated annual revenue of $4.2 trillion.

President Obama is committed to attracting the world’s best and brightest entrepreneurs to start the next great companies here in the United States. That’s why creating a "startup visa" for foreign entrepreneurs has always been a part of the President’s framework for commonsense immigration reform, and why his Administration created the Entrepreneur Pathways resource center to help entrepreneurs navigate existing visa categories. 

While there is no substitute for legislation to fix our broken immigration system, the President is now taking executive action to fix what he can, including new efforts to significantly enhance immigration options for foreign entrepreneurs.

The initial details of this action are spelled out in a directive from the Secretary of Homeland Security. For the first time, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will issue detailed guidance and rules to establish eligibility criteria for entrepreneurs seeking one of two immigration pathways: 

  1. Lawful permanent residency (also known as a "green card"):  As defined by Congress, the “EB-2" visa category is available to applicants who can demonstrate either an advanced degree or exceptional ability. Typically, a U.S. company must sponsor the application, but this requirement can be waived if it would be in our national interest. DHS will provide a detailed standard for this “national interest waiver,” so that entrepreneurs have greater clarity on when they might self-petition for a green card on this basis. With this clarity, we hope to promote greater use of this immigration option in order to boost job creation and grow our economy. 
  2. Temporary status: Under existing authority granted by Congress, DHS may allow an individual to work in the United States when doing so would yield a “significant public benefit.” DHS will design a program to grant this temporary “parole status” to inventors, researchers, and entrepreneurs who may not qualify for the green card pathway described above, but who promise significant public benefit. This program is also likely to include criteria related to creating jobs, attracting investment, and generating revenue within the United States. As a discretionary program with case-by-case determinations, it will not be subject to statutory caps. Eligible individuals will be subject to income and resource threshold requirements and therefore will not be eligible for certain Federal public benefits.

In short, these actions will create two clear and reliable immigration pathways for entrepreneurs who have been validated by American investors or customers. For example, imagine an entrepreneur who dreams of starting and scaling her company in the United States, and who is admitted to a highly competitive U.S. startup accelerator program that also provides significant seed funding. That entrepreneur will have the confidence of knowing whether she is eligible for the temporary “parole status” pathway, allowing her to start growing her company here right away. Later, she will know under what circumstances she may qualify for the green card pathway, if she is successful in creating jobs for U.S. workers and attracting more capital from U.S. investors, allowing her to become an American over time.  (Note that these pathways will likely also be open to "bootstrap" entrepreneurs who are successful in generating revenue from U.S. customers, without needing to rely on external financing.)

Creating these immigration pathways for entrepreneurs will require new guidance and rules, which DHS will release as soon as possible, based on public feedback. You can sign up for email updates from U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services here.

Of course, only Congress can create the legislative fixes and immigration options that we need to fix our immigration system. The Senate included provisions to enhance our employment-based visa system, including options for entrepreneurs, in the immigration reform bill that passed with substantial bipartisan support more than 500 days ago. President Obama will continue to work with Congress to pass a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that will fix the whole system.

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Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Doug Rand is Assistant Director for Entrepreneurship at OSTP.