The U.S. Immigration System and a Workaround for Immigrant Entrepreneurs
An Overview of the U.S. Immigrant System
The United States has long been the country of choice for talented and ambitious immigrants. Immigrant entrepreneurs, in particular, are drawn to tech and entrepreneurial hubs such as Silicon Valley. There, celebrated tech visionaries such as Sergey Brin (born in Russia), Jerry Yang (born in Taiwan), and Elon Musk (born in South Africa) built iconic American companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Tesla, all of which have changed the way the world lives and works. Indeed, more than half of the country’s unicorn companies had at least one immigrant co-founder, and a quarter of engineering and technology startups had at least one key immigrant co-founder.
But to immigrate to the United States is not a simple matter. Under existing law, aspiring and established entrepreneurships can apply to one of several visa categories that would allow them to live and work in the United States. These include the following:
- EB-1A Extraordinary Ability
- EB-1C Multinational Manager/Executive
- EB-2 National Interest Waiver
- EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program
However, many of these visas are subject to strict caps and can come with strict requirements. The EB-1A visa for extraordinary ability, for example, can be granted to individuals to who have won prestigious awards such as Nobel Prize or an Olympic Medal or have made “original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic, or business-related contributions of major significant to the field.” The EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, similarly, requires applicants to inject at least $500,000-$1 million in capital into the U.S. economy, with the expectation that their investment will create at least 10 qualifying full-time jobs.
Because these prerequisites would preclude most applicants, except for those who are already highly accomplished and successful in their chosen fields, most immigrants resort to the H-1B visa, a common but highly sought-after visa that is sponsored by companies for skilled labor. However, each year the cap of 85,000 visas (65,000 for individuals with job offers and an additional 20,000 for those with advanced degrees from U.S. universities) is filled within days of the application process opening. In addition, the Trump administration has increased the scrutiny applied to H1-B visa renewals and is planning to stop granting work permits to the spouses of H1-B visa holders.
In response to these strictures, many have called for the creation of a “startup” visa, which would empower immigrant entrepreneurs to try and start their own businesses, rather than coming to the United States bound to the employer who sponsored their H1-B visa.
Until that happens though, the next best possible chance for immigrant entrepreneurs may be H1-B visas sponsored by universities through the H1-B program. Unlike company-sponsored H1-B visas, which are capped at 85,000, universities may sponsor an unlimited number of foreign-born entrepreneurs through what many are calling Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. The university technically employs the entrepreneur, who is required to complete a limited amount of mentoring, teaching, or advising. During their spare time, however, they are able to work on their own business ventures. One of these programs, GlobalEIR, currently works with seven universities to host entrepreneurs-in-residence, and to-date they have been able to secure visas for 42 entrepreneurs who have raised $29.9 million and hired 123 jobs.
The GlobalEIR program and others like them have now expanded to 14 university partners across six different states. Entrepreneurs interested in these visas should hurry to apply. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has recently taken notice of these programs and called them a “cynical exploitation of loopholes in the law,” which means that they may soon fall victim to the Trump administration’s attempts to reduce the number of immigrants allowed into the United States.
To learn more about some of the currently available programs, check out some of these sponsoring universities: