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The Lack of Visa Options for Entrepreneurs is Hurting America's Economy

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At the age of 23-years old, I discovered my co-founder, Kiran Panesar, in 2011 when I was searching online for someone to help me develop a mobile app for my music blog. At the time, Kiran was seventeen years old and figured $85 was a fair price. Of course, I quickly accepted, and we built multiple music-related apps.

Recognizing an opportunity to build more, I asked Kiran if he wanted to go into business with me. After months of rapid success, we decided it was time to officially start MobileX Labs and establish an office in Chicago, Illinois. That’s when we ran into the antiquated visa application system. In the process of trying to get our CTO to the U.S. legally, we learned just how difficult it is for people of all backgrounds and skillsets to acquire work visas, and how much the American economy is missing out because of it.

Related: Expand the Startup Visa Act (Opinion)

Visa options for foreign professionals. Because he has forgone college to start our business, Kiran lacked the formal qualifications for a H-1B non-immigrant (temporary) work visa, even though there is no question Kiran is exactly the type of individual the U.S. would welcome with open arms. He is entrepreneurial, creative and skilled in multiple programming languages and has a list of accolades longer than most college graduates, though he has not yet turned 21.

Ironically, Kiran’s decision not to attend university is directly tied to his success. “I realized that the opportunity of running a successful company at 19-years old isn’t something that happens very often,” he explains. Kiran decided to dedicate all his energy towards MobileX Labs. That decision helped the company grow to a $11.5M valuation but condemned him to visa purgatory.

The U.S. issues only 85,000 H1-B visas every year. Of those, 20,000 are only available to foreign nationals with graduate degrees from American universities. The quota is routinely reached within a few days of the application opening for each fiscal year. Around 20% of applicants’ petitions are denied.

The other option for foreign workers, a permanent residency “green card”, can take months or years to acquire due to backlogs in the system. It places priorities on individuals with families/spouses already in the U.S.

An antiquated and outdated system. Kiran’s situation is a direct result of outdated and overly-officious immigration policy that neglects skilled individuals and job creators. Applying for a visa costs thousands of dollars, relegating small companies and startups to a domestic talent pool. It’s estimated that easing eligibility requirements for non-immigrant and residency visas between 2003 and 2007 would have led to over 180,000 science and technology professionals remaining in the country, boosting GDP by over $14 billion in 2008.

Perhaps the biggest hypocrisy in the system is the existence of the J-1 “au pair” visa designed specifically for foreign childcare workers. It only requires that applicants be between 18 and 26 and have a high school/secondary degree. I’m originally from Brazil, and have many friends who came over on the au pair program. They deserve to be here but why does the government have a visa for them but not for Kiran, who is already a successful business owner? It is exasperating. Kiran’s potential upside to the economy is much greater. MobileX Labs is paying taxes and creating jobs in Illinois and the U.S., not to mention creating an innovative software product.

Related: Push for Entrepreneur Immigration Reform Grows on Capitol Hill

All-or-nothing leap of faith. Kiran decided to take a risk and apply for an O-1A visa, reserved for those with “extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics”. Essentially, he applied for the same visas reserved for Olympic athletes and Nobel laureates.

There is no yearly quota for O-1As. Each case is reviewed independently. The application process is arduous and requires a lot of both the individual and the sponsoring employer but the acceptance rate is relatively high compared to other non-immigrant visas. However, if he was denied, it would significantly lower the likelihood of being accepted in the future on any visa. Worse, he would relinquish his right to participate in the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of certain countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days for business or tourism.

Kiran helped start a multi-million dollar company from his bedroom. If anybody deserves the O-1A visa, he does. Yet the decision to seek an O-1A visa wasn’t driven by the recognition of his talent but by absolute necessity. The system left the team no other option.

Kiran secured the O-1A and moved to Chicago in June after months of working with the service VISANOW and the government. He intends to apply for permanent resident status in 2015.

“These types of visas are tough to secure because they take a long time. Given that the U.S. immigration process is so complicated, we are happy to help individuals like Kiran by providing a faster, easier and more reliable way to get a visa. We are excited that MobileX Labs now has their CTO here in the U.S.,” Robert Meltzer CEO and Founder, VISANOW.

Immigration reform tends to focus on unskilled workers entering the U.S. illegally. Kiran’s situation represents a different problem with federal policy. Legislation in the Senate in 2013 would have empowered successful, early-stage businesses to hire and relocate foreign entrepreneurs. The bill did not pass but having the issue recognized on a national level is a definite step in the right direction.

Pressure is mounting from businesses, large and small, to make meaningful changes to the law. Until the U.S. can institute such reforms, the country will continue to miss out on top business and technology talent, which in turn hurts the economy.

Related: Immigrants Can Shed Fears of Entering the Startup World -- With These Strategies

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