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Losing the Global Race for Talent
America’s broken immigration system is keeping out many of the best and brightest from other countries.
By Sahil Handa
If you are in India and you apply for a visa to enter the U.S., you must wait for two years. This applies whether you are a tourist, a worker or anything else. Recently, I found this out when I tried to bring a contractor who works with me from Chennai to New York for some customer meetings. I simply couldn’t.
The way I ultimately got around the wait time was by writing a series of letters to the U.S. Embassy in India arguing that it was absolutely necessary for the American economy that this contractor be allowed to enter and briefly work in the country. I asked my company’s most credible investor to submit a similar letter. Eventually, we got an expedited temporary visa approved.
The contractor is one of the most promising young developers in India. And he is better equipped to tackle the kinds of technological challenges my company has right now than most computer science graduates coming out of elite U.S. universities. And yet, after he finishes his work for us, he will not be permitted to stay in the U.S., but will have to return to India.
I am a British citizen, and I faced my own battles with this system. When I incorporated my company, I was living in the U.K. Thanks to Stripe Atlas, an easy-to-use platform for forming a company, I was able to set up a U.S. corporate entity from the comfort of my zebra-themed childhood bedroom in London. But when I went back to the U.S. and wanted to start paying myself a salary, I was stuck. I could employ U.S. citizens in America, but I could not employ myself.
The only option available to me was an “O1 visa”—the “extraordinary ability visa”—which would involve paying a lawyer $10,000 to convince the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service that I satisfied a set of “extraordinary” criteria: that I’d won internationally recognized prizes, been spoken about in major media, made significant contributions to a field, or could be considered an expert in my field who could command a very high salary.
This was a stressful, labor-intensive process, one that included a lot of uncertainty and flying to Lisbon to get my passport stamped when I was finally approved (the soonest available appointment at the London embassy was five months away). But once it was over, everything changed. I went from being asked 10 questions by the immigration officer at border security each time I entered the country to being treated like royalty when I arrived in the U.S. Since I had found the right lawyer, and had the company funds to work with that lawyer, my status in the eyes of the government was transformed.
I understand why strict immigration laws are put in place: Those already here need to be the first priority for the government. But it ought to be possible for a promising startup in the U.S. to bring some of the world’s most talented people into the country to help out, for at least a short time.
The United States has long been a beacon for entrepreneurs from all over the world, with Silicon Valley serving as a global hub for the country’s innovation and startup culture. The venture capital industry is largely an American phenomenon, and it has been responsible for a tremendous amount of economic growth; but so too have immigrants. Immigrant entrepreneurs have played a significant role in many U.S. startup success stories, including the founders of Affirm, Avant, Discord and AT&T.
In fact, according to a study by the National Foundation for American Policy, more than half of American startups valued at $1 billion or more had at least one immigrant founder. These companies have created thousands of jobs and contributed significantly to the American economy. Immigrants also have come in to run more-established firms, from Intel’s Andy Grove to Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai.
Yet the government has been extremely slow to adapt its visa policies to accommodate foreign-born entrepreneurs. Unbelievably, there is currently no specific visa category for entrepreneurs and their teams. This puts the U.S. at a severe disadvantage in competing with other countries that are actively seeking to attract foreign talent. Canada, for instance, has a Startup Visa program that provides a path to permanent residency for entrepreneurs who can secure funding from designated Canadian investors. The U.K. has the Innovator Visa, which is designed specifically for entrepreneurs who want to start businesses in the country. Coupled with the United States’ increasingly uncertain regulatory environment in fields such as crypto and AI, it is becoming less and less surprising to me when I hear about friends choosing to locate themselves and their companies elsewhere.
The lack of a visa program for entrepreneurs in the U.S. seems to have more to do with bureaucratic inertia than intent. (It reminds me of how long it took for the U.S. to lift its COVID travel ban on non-U.S. citizens entering the country.) Regardless, making it difficult for many of the world’s most talented people to even visit the U.S. for business purposes, let alone live here, will have serious long-term economic and geopolitical consequences.
I’m currently working on potential visa cases for three different employees, each involving expensive legal fees, many hours of time, and uncertainty. These are not people who are seeking to permanently emigrate to the U.S.: They simply want to take advantage of an opportunity to put their talents to use, and then return home.
As it becomes more and more common for top global talent to live and work someplace for a year or even less before returning home, countries must adjust their laws accordingly. Although it has long been a mecca for foreign entrepreneurs, the U.S. cannot rest on its laurels. American policymakers need to act now or lose out.