Senators should be aware of a critical fact, as they debate immigration reform: If we don’t want foreign-born talent in the United States, other countries are more than happy to take the talent, and the innovation potential that goes with it, off of our hands.
“I’m here to send the message that Canada’s open for business—we welcome the entrepreneurs that America is turning away” said Canadian Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney at Stanford Law School this week. His message to Silicon Valley’s immigrant entrepreneurs: “If you’re thinking of doing a start-up in North America, why don’t you come to Canada? You can do so permanently. Create the wealth there, create the jobs in Canada, bring your huge human capital to Canada, and contribute to our economy.” The Canadian government even purchased a large billboard on Route 101—the main thoroughfare between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which says “H-1B problems? Pivot to Canada”.
— Brandon Duncan (@duncanbrandon) May 16, 2013
That’s how badly Canada wants people in the middle of our national debate over immigration. And they’re not alone.
Ireland also wants the entrepreneurs the U.S. is turning away. Last week, on a visit to Dublin, I met Richard Bruton, Ireland’s Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. He practically echoed Kenney verbatim, saying that Ireland wants to get a message to Silicon Valley that goes something like this: The Irish government welcomes foreign entrepreneurs and will offer substantial support and financing. He sees this as a way of boosting Ireland’s struggling economy.
My advice to Bruton was that he should take out a billboard on the other side of Route 101.
Meanwhile, America’s loss has already been Chile’s gain. It has a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem thanks to Startup Chile, a program that I helped design. Chile offers $40,000 and visas and free office space to foreign entrepreneurs to bootstrap their startups in Santiago. The program has attracted hundreds of startups from the U.S. and abroad. It has created so much buzz and excitement that The Economist dubbed it “Chilecon Valley”.
Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Italy are all trying to build something like what Chile did. All have approached me to ask how they can recreate Startup Chile.
So, while U.S. leaders debate the merits of immigration reform, other countries are eagerly taking advantage of our dysfunction. Comprehensive immigration reform took a major step forward this week, with The Senate Judiciary Committee approving a plan. But the ugliest battles lie ahead in the House and Senate.
With extremists on both ends of the political spectrum chipping away at public support for reform, there is no certainty that any legislation will finally pass. It could take many months even to get to the point that the final votes are cast. In the meantime, the U.S. continues to experience an immigrant exodus—as skilled workers get frustrated with the visa system and leave. This is why I have argued that we need to pass legislation that both sides agree on—such as a Startup Visa similar to what Canada just announced. And we need a Plan B in case there is a stalemate on reform.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance fellow at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley. Read more about Vivek Wadhwa