Feb. 13, 2013 -- Although a diverse group of lawmakers is backing the Immigration Innovation Act, a bipartisan group of senators argues that it's lacking a key component -- a provision to offer visas to foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to start companies in the United States.
To address the issue, Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) will introduce a bill on Wednesday called the Startup Act 3.0 that would create a new entrepreneur visa for foreign-born innovators, aimed at encouraging highly skilled science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) immigrants to stay in the country.
"This legislation has support for entrepreneurs that is broader than any other immigration bill," Moran said in an interview with ABC/Univision. "The genesis for the legislation is the belief that we're not doing enough to reduce the deficit."
He said that bringing innovators into the country is a smart way to grow the economy and deal with the nation's debt. He also noted that foreign innovators have a track record of launching successful businesses in the United States, but cautioned that it doesn't make sense to issue visas that require them to leave the country a few years down the road.
"If we want to attract the best and brightest a temporary visa is not necessarily the solution," Moran said.
The Startup Act would establish a new visa program for immigrant entrepreneurs and would give green cards to STEM graduates from American universities. Introducing the legislation with Moran are Senators Chris Coons (D-Delaware), Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia).
Coons is also a sponsor of the Immigration Innovation Act, which would increase the number of employment-based nonimmigrant H-1B visas the country awards. But Moran and others say that bill doesn't go far enough.
A Moran legislative staffer who helped craft the new entrepreneur visa bill said it would allow entrepreneurs to eventually gain legal status and then become citizens as long as they meet certain criteria. Those criteria include hiring a minimum number of workers by different benchmark years and obtaining financial backing. The idea is to keep entrepreneurs and their innovations in the country and not create an environment that encourages workers to take their businesses abroad. Right now, the staffer said, entrepreneurs often apply for H-1B visas, which can take a long time to get, so the Immigration Innovation Act has a hole.
Startup Act 3.0 also makes permanent a capital-gains tax exemption for startups, creates a research and development tax credit for new companies under five years old with less than $5 million in annual receipts, and rewards universities that put federally funded faculty research on the market with grant money.
Senator Warner, in an interview with ABC/Univision, compared holders of H-1B visas to "semi-indentured servants" because the visas tie workers to particular sponsor companies. The entrepreneur visa would allow innovators the flexibility to launch their own businesses.
Warner also emphasized that the act does not eliminate family visas or the diversity visa system, which some Republicans have advocated.
Steve Case, the co-founder of America Online, has lent his backing to the proposal.
"I'm encouraged to see continued enthusiasm and momentum in Washington to support entrepreneurs," he wrote in an email, "with the reintroduction of the bipartisan Startup Act demonstrating a real commitment to help the United States win the global battle for talent. By creating a new visa for foreign students with advanced STEM degrees and immigrant entrepreneurs, and by eliminating the per-country cap on employment-based visas, we will make it easier for the best and the brightest from across the globe to start businesses, innovate, and create jobs right here in the United States."
According to the Moran staffer, the United States is falling behind its global competitors in removing barriers for entrepreneurs. Canada, for instance, has done a good job in the last couple of years of amending their laws to make it easier and faster for entrepreneurs to get visas.
Senator Moran recently displayed on the Senate floor a blown-up version of an ad that ran in Fast Company, drawing would-be startup founders to Ontario, Canada.
"They're luring them from here," he said. "They're trying to get them from the United States."
He pointed out that countries as diverse as Singapore and Russia, Chile and Brazil have taken steps to attract foreign-born entrepreneurs by, for example, shortening the approval process for visa applications to a matter of weeks, as opposed to months or years.
He also stressed that entrepreneurs are looking for flexibility and that the current visa system can make it difficult for innovators to succeed in the United States.
"I'm told it's difficult to borrow money to start a business on an H-1b visa. The visas we create are for the person, not tied to a specific company… so this gives them more freedom," Moran said. "I want the American dream to be lived in America."
Moran and the other senators introduced similar legislation in December of 2011, but it failed to gain traction. Moran's staffer said the timing of the reintroduction is "not necessarily related to the discussion of comprehensive immigration reform," but rather that the bill is being raised again now because Moran and his co-sponsors "can play a constructive role" in the immigration dialogue.
Moran doesn't think the four senators need to wait for a comprehensive immigration reform plan to introduce their bill. He says about 80 of his Senate colleagues are likely to support the provisions included in the proposed legislation. Warner said he would like to see an entrepreneur visa rolled into a larger reform bill.
Moran's staffer expressed skepticism that a comprehensive bill would move forward quickly.
"The details have to get hammered out and that could be a difficult process," the staffer said. "It's one thing to agree on a broad statement, but how do you do that specifically? There are a lot of challenges."
This post has been updated. It originally reported that Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) would be one of the bill's sponsors. Rubio will not sponsor the Startup Act 3.0. According to sources familiar with the situation, Rubio decided not to sponsor the bill on Wednesday, the day it was introduced.