Scientists at work at San Diego life sciences company. File photo courtesy CONNECT

By Sophie Alcorn

Over the last year, my law firm has been advising a client about whether to open a branch of his business in Silicon Valley. He’s a German scientist and engineer and the founder of KiE Labs, an artificial intelligence company whose patents could revolutionize the field. But increasingly, he has soured on the idea of investing in the United States.

He worries that immigration restrictions would make it too difficult to settle here, let alone staff his company. He does not believe in a President who, among many others, has insulted the German Chancellor and the people of Germany and Europe. And he doesn’t want to open a global business in a country that doesn’t value diversity.

This example is one of countless opportunities the United States has lost due to antiquated, overly complicated visa programs and the draconian, anti-immigrant policies of the White House. When our leaders push entrepreneurs out, they build startups in more welcoming countries. We lose out on new inventions, job creation for Americans, and valuable human capital. Let’s take our economic recovery seriously. To compete in the world, this has to change.

The administration used COVID-19 to scapegoat immigrants and as an excuse to dismantle several vital programs, including visas for scientific researchers and medical students as well as technology workers and their families. Also targeted are intracompany transfers and visas for international students and even au pairs.

Building this invisible wall destroys American innovation and increases labor shortages in engineering and healthcare. Currently, international students make up a significant percentage of our graduate STEM programs, while nearly a quarter of medical residents are foreign-born. A full 26 percent of practicing foreign-born physicians in the United States graduated from American medical schools. Now in the middle of a pandemic, the White House wants to hurt Americans by keeping these people away.

Sophie Alcorn

Now more than ever we need job creation. Unknown to most, immigration creates jobs. Historically, immigrants found companies at higher rates than native-born Americans. They did so after the last recession, founding 28% of all small businesses in 2011, despite accounting for 13% of the population. In 2017, immigrant entrepreneurs employed more than 8 million people in the U.S. This year, 44% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or their children, according to New American Economy.

We need a “startup visa.” We have no visa program exclusively for immigrant entrepreneurs. Immigrant business owners can try to be hired by an existing company as a way to get here, but that means beating out 200,000 people for one of just 85,000 visas granted via lottery to high-skilled workers. Even if they do get one of these visas, they generally must receive permanent residency before it’s “safe” to go independent. But the green card backlog is racist because it targets India and China, which produce top global talent, and it’s years—and in many cases decades—long.

Additionally, there is a growing gap between the number of students with advanced STEM degrees graduating from U.S. colleges and universities, and the number of those students who are ultimately employed by U.S. companies. New American Economy finds that 26.7% of all master’s graduates and 38.6% of all Ph.D graduates from American STEM programs are international. Yet our current immigration system provides few opportunities for these students to secure long-term employment here after graduation.

This is one of the main reasons I founded the Community for Global Innovation, which connects tech companies and international students. Even as STEM fields become increasingly important to our economy, the number of American citizen and permanent resident students pursuing advanced degrees in STEM fields has fallen by 6.3%, according to the National Science Foundation’s 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators report.

America has long been considered a country that pushes the bounds of what was thought possible in medicine, industry and technology. But recovering from the pandemic and its economic disruption will require more than a mere “return” to our pre-COVID world. We can’t go back. Now, we need to innovate, create and improve. This requires the world’s best and brightest minds.

With the incoming administration, I feel more hopeful. Yet we must continue to elect candidates who want to modernize, who appreciate the hard work of generations past and also know that in order to protect America’s future, we must innovate and welcome those who long to contribute. This means creating a startup visa, and clearing a pathway for international entrepreneurs, high-skilled workers and foreign students. It means clearing the green card backlog.

If America wants to retain its place on the world stage and grow our economy even beyond our pre-COVID standards, we must open our arms to innovation and brilliance — no matter where it comes from.

Sophie Alcorn is the founding partner of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and the founder of the Community for Global Innovation.

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