America Should Welcome Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Opinion

When I came to America in 1987, as a wide-eyed University of Texas grad student, I arrived with just a suitcase and a few hundred dollars — money that my mother, back in India, had scraped together by selling her beloved jewelry collection.

Three decades later, I’m a successful biomedical researcher and serial entrepreneur with more than 120 patents to my name, and eight successful businesses under my belt. I sold one business, Confluent Surgical, for $250 million; another, Augmenix, was ranked the third-fastest-growing company in Massachusetts, and has revenues of around $50 million a year. I am on the board of six medical device, pharma, and analytics companies.

All told, the companies I created employ around 1,200 people, and the surgical products I developed have been used to treat more than 5 million patients.

My story is the American dream writ large: I came with nothing, worked hard and played by the rules, and built myself a future. Along the way, I created jobs for hundreds of Americans, spurred innovations that helped countless people, and delivered a long-term economic boost to my new home. I am thankful to America for welcoming me with open arms.

That’s exactly the kind of success story that the International Entrepreneur Rule (IER), an Obama-era immigration initiative that the Trump administration is seeking to dismantle, was intended to facilitate. The IER, sometimes described as a “startup visa,” was intended to help foreign-born people come to America to start businesses — but last year, the Trump administration announced plans to rescind the rule.

That’s bad news for entrepreneurs who had hoped to come to America, but also for the American communities where they would have created jobs and attracted investment.

Each entrepreneur arriving under the IER would have been required to generate five jobs, adding 135,240 jobs to the economy over the program’s first decade. The knock-on benefits from salaries and increased consumer spending would have been worth up to $18.5 billion, according to New American Economy.

That’s a conservative estimate: STEM companies like mine create jobs at much higher rates than the IER’s five-job minimum. With 85 percent of IER applications expected to come from STEM startups, the program would likely have created nearly 430,000 jobs, delivering correspondingly greater economic benefits.

The International Entrepreneur Rule wasn’t perfect. Questions remained about which industries to prioritize, how to measure success, and what pathway entrepreneurs should have to permanent residence. Immigration policy is complicated, and people were right to wonder how the government would ensure the system wasn’t misused.

But rather than working to improve the IER, the Trump administration wants to abolish it. That’s a terrible idea: whatever concerns one might have about the IER’s fine print, it’s unquestionable that America benefits when bright, ambitious people can come and start businesses here.

Without the IER, entrepreneurs will face significant hurdles. It’s near-impossible to start companies while on student or skilled-worker visas, so many talented immigrants will have to wait until they get a green card, which can take many years, before striking out on their own.

I’ve mentored dozens of young entrepreneurs, both American and foreign-born, and I’m always struck by their hunger — the same drive and ambition that I felt when I first came to this country.

That drive won’t evaporate simply because we make it difficult for entrepreneurs to come to America: people who have the startup itch will find a way to scratch it, and will go wherever they must to find the opportunities and resources they need.

Some will still come to America, of course. I came without the benefit of the IER, despite visa struggles that almost forced me to return to India, and others will find ways to do the same.

But the harder we make it for entrepreneurs to come to America, the more likely they are to simply go elsewhere. The U.S. may be cooling on immigrants, but India, China, Australia, and Europe are open for business, and will welcome the entrepreneurs we turn away.

That means those countries, rather than America, will benefit from the ambition, creativity, and talent of the entrepreneurs we’re turning away — and those countries, rather than America, will reap the benefits of the jobs, inventions, and tax dollars these bright young people generate as they chase their dreams.

Amar Sawhney is the chairman of Ocular Therapeutix, Augmenix, and Instylla, Inc. Follow @

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