H-1B debate: Immigrants key to tech startups

Tech industry pushes for increase in H-1B visas for professionals as study shows immigrant-created companies create $50 billion in revenue.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor
Indian and Chinese immigrants are a huge part of the technology startup story. Everybody knows this intuitively. Now a study from UC Berkeley and Duke researchers finds that fully 25 percent of tech and engineering companies launched since 1995 had at least one foreign-born founder. According to the study, immigrant-founded companies account for $50 billion in sales, reports the Washington Post.

"This research shows that immigrants have become a significant driving force in the creation of new businesses and intellectual property in the U.S. -- and that their contributions have increased over the past decade," wrote Vivek Wadhwa, the study's author, who immigrated from India with his family as a young man.

The study looked at the World Intellectual Property Organization Patent Cooperation Treaty database, which showed that 25 percent of international patents filed in the United States in 2006 were submitted by immigrants.

It's all part of the debate on immigration and the numbers of H-1B visas the government makes available. Scott McNealy of Sun has been lobbying hard for an increase in the visas.

McNealy noted that immigrants Vinod Kosla of India and Andy Bechtelsheim of Germany co-founded Sun. The company "created tens of thousands of jobs that have generated billions of dollars in exports and has created thousands of patents and intellectual-property positions," McNealy said. "Why would you have any arbitrary number on smart people?"

The industry wants Congress to pass a law increasing the number of H-1Bs from the current level of 65,000. A measure introduced in the last Congress to increase the number to 115,000, as well as eliminate green-card caps for some advanced-degree holders and streamline the processing of employment-based green cards, didn't get passed. A Democratic Congress may be more attuned to the needs of tech.

"We are working on that new piece of legislation that will hopefully be a great fix for a lot of our companies," said Andrea Hoffman, vice president of government and political affairs for TechNet, an industry lobby backed by hundreds of technology companies, including Apple Computer, Microsoft and Google.

For anti-immigration groups, it's gospel that immigration takes away jobs. Groups like the Center for Immigration Studies can't distinguish between farm workers (imagining for a moment that Americans want to pick grapes) and engineers, apparently. They oppose a jump in H-1Bs because it would amount to "a subsidy for business because it allows them to bring cheaper labor from overseas."

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