Judging from President Donald Trump’s announced intention to kill a program aimed at allowing foreign founders of successful startup firms to stay in the United States, he is not content with being the most anti-immigration, anti-environment and anti-free press U.S. leader in recent memory. He now wants to become the most anti-innovation one.
In a move that has drawn fire from some of the best-known U.S. technology innovators, the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security announced July 10 that it will postpone until March 14, 2018 – and “may ultimately eliminate” – the so-called U.S. startup visa program.
The program, the International Entrepreneur Rule, was supposed to start this month. It was launched by former President Barack Obama toward the end of his term, and the Obama administration had estimated at the time that it would draw about 2,940 applications for temporary visas annually.
To be eligible for these visas, foreign innovators had to show that they had raised at least $250,000 from established U.S. investors, or more than $100,000 in U.S. government grants.
The foreign entrepreneurs had to own at least 10 percent of their startups, and had to be actively involved in their operations. If approved, their visas would be good for 30 months, and could be extended if their startups proved successful.
When I first read about this decision, I could hardly believe it. Anybody who has ever set foot in Silicon Valley, or in emerging innovation centers such as Austin or Miami, knows that foreigners are a driving force of U.S. scientific, technological and business innovations.
Some of the best-known U.S. innovators are foreign born, including Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, Sergey Brin of Google and Garrett Camp of Uber. If Musk’s SpaceX company, which already employs about 6,000 people, succeeds in its goal of sending the first U.S. manned mission to Mars, it will be thanks to an immigrant.
Immigrants have founded 51 percent of the current crop of U.S. startups valued at more than $1 billion, according to a recent study by the National Foundation for American Policy. The study showed that 44 immigrant-founded companies had a collective market value of $168 billion.
For Miami, which was recently ranked by the Kauffman Foundation’s 2017 Index of Startup Activity as the No. 1 city with the highest rate of entrepreneurs opening new businesses, Trump’s latest decision is – next to his decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change – the worst possible news.
Miami ranks No. 1 in the nation in immigrant-founded businesses with employees, according to another Kaufmann Foundation study cited by the Miami Herald’s Nancy Dahlberg.
Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of a new book on innovation titled “The driver in the driverless car,” did not mince words when I asked him about Trump’s decisions to delay and possibly kill the foreign entrepreneurs’ visa program.
“The startup visa was the closest thing to a free lunch for the United States,” Wadhwa told me. “It would have enabled entrepreneurs all over the world to bring their ideas, inventions, and money here to create jobs. No jobs are taken away, only new jobs created.”
He added, “The Trump administration’s decision will only hurt U.S. competitiveness and help countries that are competing with it. It is the peak of stupidity and xenophobia, the most foolish of all policy decisions.”
Likewise, the U.S. National Venture Capital Association, which represents startup investors, said in a statement that Trump’s decision “represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the critical role immigrant entrepreneurs play in growing the next generation of American companies.”
My opinion: The delay and possible elimination of the startup visa program is an idiotic idea, even by Trump administration standards. While Canada, France, Singapore, Chile and several other countries are offering visas and financial incentives to foreign entrepreneurs, the United States is doing the opposite.
Trump keeps talking about saving coal miners’ jobs, as if that decaying – and polluting – industry represented America’s future. On the contrary, it represents America’s past, and Trump’s ignorance about the knowledge economy that is driving the future will put the U.S. economy at risk. He is rapidly becoming the anti-innovation president.