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Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Is America Losing Its Edge?

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Sheela Murthy finds herself smack in the middle of America's immigration reform debate, reminding us that the proposed legislation is not about the length of fences or number of visas, but about real people looking to live the American dream.

For many, that dream is steeped in America's culture and history of entrepreneurship, where some 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were created by immigrants or their children, according to statistics.

Murthy estimates that her immigration law firm receives between five to 10 phone calls each week from foreign workers in America who want to start a business but are stuck in green card limbo.

"Their biggest concern is, 'How am I supposed to run a company if I'm not sure if I can stay?' And they want to hire employees but they can't," Murthy told The Story Exchange.

Murthy, founder of the Baltimore-based Murthy Law Firm, says most of these calls are from people who are foreign-born professionals with visas who are keen to strike out on their own. "Some people have already started a business and I have to tell them that they might be violating the law," she says.

Watch Sheela Murthy's Startup Story:

Immigrant startups in decline 

As legislators debate the latest attempt at immigration reform, they do so at at a time when the number of immigrant-founded startups is declining for the first time, with foreign-born entrepreneurs fighting for a limited number of visas and green cards, according to a 2012 report by the Kaufmann Foundation.

Countries like Britain, Chile and Canada are offering so-called startup visas to entrepreneurs in the hopes of luring immigrant talent. A newly posted billboard in Silicon Valley advertises a Canadian startup visa program to foreigners who are having trouble staying in the U.S.: "H-1B problems?" it reads, "Pivot to Canada."

Billboard in Silicon Valley. Photo: Debora Villalon, KTVU

Billboard in Silicon Valley. Photo: Debora Villalon, KTVU

"I think we make it too difficult to attract and retain talented people, including entrepreneurs," Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, told The Story Exchange. "It is clear that our laws haven't kept pace with new business models and ways of starting companies that are small, nimble, and flexible."

It's a problem that Murthy knows all too well. She started her immigration law firm, which employs 92 people, after going through a long and stressful process of obtaining U.S. citizenship that lasted 12 years.

"I would wake up at 2 a.m. in cold sweats. Can I stay or do I have to leave? I couldn't buy a house because I was afraid to loose my downpayment if I was forced to leave," she says.

(Related: Watch our video of entrepreneur Sheela Murthy featured on The New York Times' Small Business section.)

The cost of reform

The Senate-passed immigration bill would help foreign-born entrepreneurs through a proposed new program called the INVEST non-immigrant visa, which would allow 10,000 qualified entrepreneurs and investors to stay in the U.S. -- but the price tag to do so is high.

The person must have created at least five jobs, lived in America for two years and raised $500,000 or more for the business and earned revenues of at least $750,000.

It also proposes almost twice the amount of H-1B visas, which are given to high-skilled employees, raising the amount from 65,000 to 110,000; as well as up to 25,000 more visas for immigrants who have earned a master's degree or higher in science, technology, engineering or math.

Some immigration advocates are concerned that a move away from a tradition of admitting immigrants based on family ties toward one that gives preference to skill, merit and entrepreneurial ability could leave some people at a disadvantage.

"If they have to choose between work and family, or if other countries make it more attractive and easier to immigrate, then we risk losing all types of skilled immigrants and all of their potential," Giovagnoli says.