Steve Case: Immigration Reform Can Spur Job Growth

We need immigration reform that unites families and improves the environment for entrepreneurs.

ENG_HP_110120_engineering.jpg
By + More

Steve Case is the chairman and CEO of Revolution LLC, the cofounder of America Online, and a member of President Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

The moment President Obama was declared the winner in last month's election, before confetti was cleared in Chicago and final votes were tallied in Florida, a consensus started forming in Washington that it was time to fix America's broken immigration system. A broad coalition of many Republicans, Democrats, independents, faith, law enforcement, and civil rights leaders were calling for a bill that would create a dignified path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented individuals currently in the country, strengthen border security, and crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers.

After a rancorous campaign and a year of political gridlock, this is encouraging.

But as Congress and the president seize the bipartisan opportunity to address the legal, social, and moral components of a comprehensive immigration bill, they should include in the package high-skill visa reform so that we strengthen America's economic competitiveness as well.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Forty percent of Fortune 500 companies in the United States were started by immigrants or the children of immigrants. From 1995 to 2005, half of Silicon Valley startups had an immigrant founder and in 2005 alone those businesses did $52 billion in sales creating more than 400,000 jobs. Iconic American companies that built whole new industries like US Steel, Dupont, Google, eBay, Honeywell, and Intel were started by immigrant founders. Chobani Yogurt, founded in 2005 by the immigrant entrepreneur Hamdi Ulukaya in upstate New York, has created 1,500 American jobs.

Just as we find common ground that unites families and protects communities, so too should we ensure that the world's most talented innovators and entrepreneurs who are educated in our great universities are able to stay and contribute, rather than be forced to set up competitor businesses abroad.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Our country once prided itself on attracting the world's most talented entrepreneurs to realize the American dream and add to our economic and cultural vitality. But our public policy has grown complacent. Today, arbitrary immigration caps force roughly 20,000 American-educated degree holders in science, technology, engineering, and math to leave our country ever year. Indeed, the percentage of immigrant-founded startups in Silicon Valley has dropped from 52.4 percent to 43.9 percent in the last seven years. After earning degrees from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and MIT—sometimes with subsidies from U.S. taxpayers—we send talented graduates to Singapore, Germany, China, India, and Canada where public policy reforms in those countries are making it more attractive for immigrants. Facebook nearly relocated a key project offshore until the company obtained a H-1b visa for a Stanford graduate from Spain.

Research shows that from 2000 to 2007, for every 100 additional foreign-born workers in a STEM field there were 262 additional jobs created for native U.S. workers. From building AOL over two decades to investing in dozens of startups across the country, I've seen firsthand how hard it can be to raise capital and expand a company when a key engineer or cofounder has an uncertain immigration status. This slows innovation and stalls economic growth.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Foreign STEM Graduates Get Green Cards?]

For the United States to retain its entrepreneurial edge and emerge more competitive in the aftermath of the Great Recession, this must change. And most Democrats and Republicans agree. President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called for stapling green cards to the diplomas of American-educated immigrants with STEM degrees, as did the Democratic and Republican Party platforms in 2012. The bipartisan Startup Act 2.0 would eliminate the per-country cap for employment based-visas, create a new STEM visa category, and establish an entrepreneur's visa for legal immigrants who start a business. Recently, four bills introduced by two Democrats and two Republicans would award green cards to the top foreign-born STEM graduates of U.S. schools. These are sensible proposals.