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Mahendra Ramsinghani Headshot

Startup Visa: Choosing Entrepreneurship Over Diversity in Immigration Debate

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On July 19, 2010, my wife and I completed our swearing-in oath ceremony as US Citizens -- a proud moment in any immigrant's life. I arrived in the U.S. in 1999 and it took only around 10 years and about $10,000 in legal fees. During the process, I was almost deported due to a minor glitch. But my application was eventually approved under the category of 'National Interest.' In the end, it was my engineering degree and MBA, combined with over fifty testimonials from national experts that helped me gain citizenship.

On the other hand, if I had been born in country with a historically low immigration rate to the U.S., such as Sierra Leone or Sudan, I could have applied for a Diversity Visa, popularly known as the Green Card Lottery, a randomized computer draw that picks 50,000 winners each year. For the Diversity Visa, all one needs is the equivalent of a US High School education or 2 years work experience. The application fee is a modest $350 and someone can reach the US in less than 6 months.

While the Diversity Visa, which encourages immigration from a diverse set of nations, thrives, the proposed Startup Visa, which aims to improve the lackluster economy in the U.S., seems to have stalled.

Under the proposed Startup Visa Act of 2011, non-U.S. entrepreneurs could qualify for a visa if they can attract a minimum equity investment of $100,000. And while over a hundred venture capitalists support the Startup Visa Act, including prominent ones like Brad Feld and Vivek Wadwha, our political leadership can't seem to get this bill through Congress.

Detractors say the Startup Visa is too susceptible fraud and abuse. "How is the government to determine which economic vision is feasible and which is pie in the sky? How will root out schemes proposed simply to procure a visa?" Lamar Smith, the House Judiciary Chairman who oversees immigration legislation, recently asked.

But requirements in the Startup Visa Act say that only investors who have been in business for at least 2 years and made investments of $500,000 or more in at least two other companies can sponsor foreign-based entrepreneurs. As a VC, I can imagine few investors in line with these requirements who would put their careers at risk by making dubious investments just to get people inside the country.

On the flip side, when you look at Diversity Visa, a different picture emerges. Typically, Diversity Visa applicants have no ties to anyone in United States. Further, in a 2005 congressional hearing on Diversity Visa issues, testimonials showed that almost 1,900 aliens from state sponsors of terrorism were selected in the 2005 Diversity Visa lottery. From 1995 to 2003, 18 percent of Diversity Visa recipients were from countries of concern with respect to terrorism. Hesham Hedayet, Karim Koubriti and Ahmed Hannan are all terrorists who were diversity lottery winners and made it into the US -- thanks to this program.

The fate of the Startup Visa Act lies in limbo. Meanwhile, 50,000 Diversity Visa lottery winners are headed to U.S. shores each year. I am all for improving diversity in our country, but not at the expense of national security or economic growth.

We have shut our doors to people who can make an economic impact, those foreign-based entrepreneurs who are willing to leave everything behind and take leaps of faith by starting job-creating businesses in the U.S. In the book Immigrant, Inc., author Richard Herman writes that in any given year, the US approves 1 million green cards, of which only 9 percent or about 90,000 are for people with advanced degrees, skills or capital to create jobs. That's a woefully small number for a country whose economy teeters on the edge of another recession.

Washington DC needs to reassess its priorities: Do we want 50,000 random people with baseline high school degrees to support some antiquated diversity needs? Or do we want 50,000 of the world's best entrepreneurs who can help our economy recover and help change our world?