India: US should learn from Chile when it comes to visas

Kyle Kim

Earlier in this space, I wrote about how immigrants — especially immigrants from India — encourage job growth in the US by starting new firms. But this week's Economist noses out a telling tidbit amid the figures I quoted that most other outlets missed:

Yes, some 44 percent of Silicon Valley start-ups include at least one immigrant among their founders (and a third of that group hails from India). But that number is actually DOWN from 52 percent in 2005, the magazine points out.

The reason is not that native born Americans have suddenly become bolder, smarter, or more inclined to write software. Rather, it's that the US has become increasingly unfriendly to immigrants, while countries like Australia, Canada, Singapore, and, yes, Chile, have been actively encouraging them — by making it easy for "brainy foreigners to obtain visas to work or set up companies," the Economist writes.

The US has reduced the number of visas it issues to skilled foreign workers to 65,000 from more than 100,000 in 1999, and the process of applying for foreign residency is "slow and unpredictable." 

When India's Vivek Wadhwa came to the US in the 1980s, it took him 18 months to get a Green Card. But as he writes in his new book, "The Immigrant Exodus," it now takes 10 years. Moreover, during that period, the applicant cannot switch jobs for fear of being bumped to the bottom of the pile — so some of the world's most talented people are essentially marking time rather than getting on with the business of inventing the next Google.

Worse still, even after they start US-based companies, immigrant entrepreneurs still get the shaft. The Economist tells of Anand and Shikha Chhatpar, two Indian engineers who founded Fame Express — which makes Facebook games — after attending university in the US. But even though they created US jobs and paid some $250,000 in taxes over two years, their visa application was denied.

What did they do?  They moved their company to India.

Contrast that story to the curious tale of "Chilecon Valley." It's closer to Anarctica than it is to California, but it has lured some 500 start-ups led by "whiz kids from 37 countries," according to the Economist, basically because the guys stamping visas in Santiago are a little more friendly.