Other nations skip past U.S. immigration tieup

While the much-needed U.S. immigration reform bill remains stuck in Congress, Canada is not waiting; it has launched a pilot program to attract global entrepreneurs by offering them permanent visas and a path to citizenship.

And judging from what Canada’s new Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander told me in an interview, his country’s program to give out 2,750 visas to young foreign entrepreneurs may soon be scaled up. “If we have success in attracting the kind of people we want to attract, I am confident that the figure will grow,” he says.

Canada is thus joining Australia, Britain, Chile, Brazil and other countries that are hoping to create Silicon Valley-like technology hubs by drawing foreign entrepreneurs who can’t get permanent visas to the United States.

And they are pretty aggressive about it: Canada recently placed a big roadside sign on a Silicon Valley highway reading, “H-1b (Visa) problems? Pivot to Canada.” Both Chile and Brazil are offering generous grants to selected foreign entrepreneurs.

Alexander told me that, under Canada’s new program launched in April, if you are a 22-year-old in Silicon Valley with a great idea, and you have $75,000 from an angel investor or $250,000 from a venture capital firm in Canada, “you will be granted permanent residence, and you will be able to become a citizen.”

Alexander said that once foreign entrepreneurs are offered funds and are approved by Canada’s angel investors or venture capital associations, “the process with us will be relatively quick, and the approval rate very high. The idea is to let the best private sector companies pick the winners, and not the government.”

Chile, whose government-sponsored Startup-Chile program was started three years ago, offers $40,000 in government aid, plus free office space and work visas, to selected foreign startups. So far, more than 7,200 foreign entrepreneurs have applied, and nearly 700 have been selected, including more than 160 from the United States.

Brazil announced earlier this year its Startup Brazil program offering domestic and foreign high-tech startups nearly $100,000 in government aid, plus free office space. But Brazil’s program is mostly geared at domestic companies, and only about 25 percent of the winners are expected to be from abroad, Startup Brazil officials say.

By comparison, the U.S. immigration bill that was recently passed by the U.S. Senate — but remains blocked by Republicans in the House over other issues — only offers a three-year “investor non-immigrant visa.” While these visas are renewable, applicants have to meet tough conditions to convert them into permanent visas with a path to citizenship, such as generating annual revenues of at least $750,000.

U.S. technology companies are so frustrated about immigration restrictions that prevent them from hiring the foreign scientists and engineers that graduate from top U.S. universities that many of them, including Microsoft, have already set up research labs in Vancouver, Canada to send them there.

More dramatically — and I first thought this was a joke — a group of entrepreneurs has launched a plan to create a floating startup community on a cruise ship in international waters 12 miles from the coast of San Francisco.

The project, called Blueseed, offers foreign entrepreneurs the possibility to be near Silicon Valley without the need of a U.S. work visa, and with the possibility of going daily to the mainland via ferry boat. More than 1,400 entrepreneurs from 68 countries have already expressed interest in living on the ship, according to Blueseed.com.

My opinion: House Republicans deserve much of the blame for the U.S. failure to fix its immigration system because, even if they support expanding the visa program for foreign entrepreneurs, they are blocking the overall Senate-approved immigration reform bill.

Their objections to the Senate bill’s provisions to grant a highly conditioned path to citizenship to millions of immigrants who are already in the country are ludicrous. Immigrants have always been a plus to this country, and — with unauthorized immigration at a 40-year low these days — their refusal to pass the Senate bill is harder to understand than ever.

When it comes to technology, the U.S. still enjoys a huge technological advantage over the rest of the world. But if Congress doesn’t move fast to fix the country’s ridiculously outdated immigration system, Canada and other countries — or perhaps even a ship docked in international waters — will increasingly close the gap.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald. Jay Bookman’s column will return soon.