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Open America's Doors to Innovation

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"Yahoo! would not be an American company today if the United States had not welcomed my family almost thirty years ago." Those are the words of Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo! describing how for an immigrant, the United States was a place especially welcoming of talent.

In today's difficult economic times, one wonders if America is that same place as when it welcomed Mr. Yang's family. Take the example in the New York Times of an entrepreneur from New Zealand (name withheld for privacy) who seemed to have everything in place to begin a promising new social networking company here in the United States. He hired 14 employees, raised $430,000 in funding and leased office space in Silicon Valley.

All the ingredients for a successful startup, right? Well no, because he lacked a visa to stay here. Sadly, he was forced to leave the United States and with it his dreams of growing a company -- and hiring workers -- here.

Imagine if this had happened to Google, eBay, Dupont, Pfizer, Solectron, Intel, Life Time Fitness or one of the many other companies that were founded by an immigrant. More than 40 percent of today's Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children -- including many of America's most well-known brands like AT&T, GE, Colgate and McDonalds. If America had not been so welcoming to these immigrants and their families -- our economy would look much less dynamic than it is today.

That drive continues today. In 2010, immigrants were more than twice as likely to start businesses each month as natives. From 1990 to 2005, immigrants founded 25 percent of public companies backed by venture capital in the United States. Immigrant-founded U.S.-based companies employed 450,000 workers and generated $52 billion in revenue in 2006.

Today, there's a real concern in the technology community that our nation's immigration policies are keeping innovative talent out of the country. That's a tragic mistake. This comes at a time when China, Brazil, India and other overseas competitors are becoming more attractive for entrepreneurs.

There's a bill in the U.S. Congress that would benefit our economy by giving permanent legal status to immigrants if they attract $1 million in investment or generate $1 million in revenue for their company. Called the Startup Visa Act, it was offered by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) in the Senate and revises the EB-5 visa program to create a new EB-6 two-year visa for those with a proven venture. It's a pretty simple idea that does not cost taxpayers anything.

The legislation is bipartisan and has broad support in the business community. Recently, Shervin Pishevar, an Iranian-born entrepreneur testified before Congress to talk about the importance of this measure and to explain the contributions immigrants have made to the U.S. economy. After coming to the America, he founded a number of technology companies including WebOS, Hyperoffice, Hotprints and invested in many others. "Every day, the U.S. is losing out to other countries that are opening their doors to immigrants, Mr. Peshavar testified. "It is imperative that the United States make it a priority to anchor innovation to its shores because history shows us that the location of innovation drives where economic value is created."

We could not agree more. We must ensure that the America's doors are open to innovators and the jobs they can create.

Rey Ramsey is Chairman of One Economy and President and CEO of TechNet.