01/30/2012 11:24 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Immigrants: Engines of Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Economic Growth

Immigrants have been central to building America. Opportunity-seeking, energetic, entrepreneurial and freedom-loving, these new "transplants" drawn by the magnet of American opportunity have helped make the United States the most prosperous country in the world. Indeed, Abraham Lincoln gave thanks to God for the contributions of immigrants when proclaiming the second Thanksgiving holiday.

Fast forward to today. Against the backdrop of a depressed economic situation, there are a growing number of debates over immigration policies and anti-immigration sentiment, especially toward the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants in this country. Add to that the restrictions in place to keep immigrants out, even well- qualified ones who could make significant contributions to America, and the picture being painted today is totally different.

Historically, with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, skilled immigrants have contributed to job and wealth creation. Adoption of a more open immigration policy that at least welcomes the most skilled can help make up our national deficit in so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees and reinstate America's world leadership in economic success. Indeed, a report released by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation that tracked the educational backgrounds of immigrant entrepreneurs who were key founders of technology and engineering companies showed that 53 percent completed their highest degrees at U.S. universities.

Immigration is not a zero-sum game. A talented immigrant can spawn a cycle of shared economic prosperity by creating innovation that leads to the establishment of new industries, which in turn, creates more jobs, reduces unemployment rates and boosts an ailing economy. Skilled immigrants remain a rich source of human capital that has the potential to spur productive entrepreneurship and drive the engine of innovation and economic growth.

Silicon Valley, the poster child of economic contributions of talented immigrants, represents this idea perfectly. Global technology brands often speak of an immigrant co-founder. Google was co-founded by Sergey Brin, a Russian; Sun Microsystems by Vinod Khosla, an Indian and now a leading venture capitalist. eBay was founded by Pierre Omidyar, a French-Iranian. Elon Musk, born in South Africa, co-founded four companies: PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX and SolarCity. YouTube's co-founder, Steve Chen, and Yahoo!'s co-founder, Jerry Yang, are both Chinese immigrants. Andy Grove, a Hungarian, co-founded Intel.

Beyond the Valley, these patterns are mirrored across the nation. From 1995 to 2005, states with an above-average rate of immigrant-founded companies include California (39 percent), New Jersey (38 percent), Georgia (30 percent), and Massachusetts (29 percent). Nationwide, these immigrant-founded companies produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers in 2005. Corporate leadership, too, draws from those born abroad. Muhtar Kent, Turkish-immigrant chairman and CEO of the Coca Cola Company; Indra Nooyi, Indian-born chairman and CEO of PepsiCo; Vikram Pandit, Indian-born CEO of Citigroup; and Andrew Leveris, Australian Chairman, CEO and president of Dow Chemicals are just some of the many high-profile immigrants at the top of American business.

Perhaps the single most distinctive factor that makes an immigrant tread on the path of entrepreneurship is the culture of entrepreneurship that they share. These immigrant entrepreneurs exhibited an entrepreneurial streak as they are more ambitious, independent and less risk averse than many of their peers who stayed in their home countries. They embody values such as self-discipline, hard work and dedication to success at the earliest ages. They possess the spirit of striving.

They see America as a land of opportunity that promises prosperity and success for those with a dream and the willingness to take a chance. Meritocracy, a democratic and constitutional government, established institutions and the idea of freedom and possibility, all tenets of the American Dream, have created fertile ground for their ideas to flourish - perhaps into great enterprises that generate jobs and growth.

In today's interconnected and globally competitive economy, these skilled individuals are often sought after by other countries who recognize that their unique qualifications and backgrounds are key drivers in the development of new products, services and processes that can deliver huge economic value.

Highly skilled immigrants are America's competitive advantage, and it is critical today more than ever that we woo and welcome them to our shores. It is my belief that our financial health and national security would be greatly enhanced by implementing two changes to existing legislation.

First, immigration policies need to be updated and adjusted so that highly educated and skilled immigrants, especially in the field of science and technology, are given an expedited permanent residency status in the U.S. for their current and future contributions to the economy.

Second, the reformed immigration policy should entice qualified immigrants who currently reside in this country as well as others from around the world who have access to capital, and grant them a provisional permanent residency to start entrepreneurial ventures in the United States. Immigrants with access to at least $1 million in capital and who are able to successfully start a new venture that creates at least 10 full-time jobs within 12 months, would be awarded a fast track to permanent residency.

Such a multi-pronged approach can create an influx of new talent and skills to bring much-needed growth to the U.S. economy. A progressive immigration policy that enhances its human capital pool is vital to America's sustained prosperity.

Welcoming talented immigrants would represent a return to America's heritage as an open door to those who strive to do better. By embracing the next wave of qualified immigrants, we will build an engine of entrepreneurship and innovation that can drive America's economy in the 21st Century.

Suren Dutia is a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Skandalaris Center at Washington University in St. Louis and serves on the boards of several entrepreneurial ventures. Previously he served as the CEO of TiE Global and chairman and CEO of Xscribe Corporation. Dutia was born in India. He came to the United States in 1960 B.S. and M.S. from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.