As U.S. Cracks Down on H1-B Visas, Latin America Adds Fast-Track Alternatives for Entrepreneurs and Investors

More and more entrepreneurs are setting up offices in Latin America where they can still hire talented foreigners without any visa hassle.

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By Nathan Lustig

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As the United States closes up its borders and becomes more hostile to even legal immigration, countries across Latin America are opening theirs. Countries such as Chile, Colombia and Mexico, are not doing it to be nice; they know immigration is good for business.

Related: The International Entrepreneur Rule and Innovation: Why Immigrants Help -- Not Harm -- the U.S. Job Market

Immigrants created 30 percent of new inventions in the U.S. over the past 100 years and started over 50 percent of the U.S.'s tech unicorns. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that programs like Start-Up Chile are emerging to bring foreigners to Latin America to spur entrepreneurial ambitions and foster local innovation.

Latin American governments are taking an extra step to attract foreign talent. In the past few years, many countries have debuted tech or investor visas to bring in skilled entrepreneurs, developers and investors to develop tech ecosystems across the region. These visas are often expedited, meaning that a qualified developer or entrepreneur could get a visa in as little as two weeks in some countries.

Compare that pace to the four- to six-month grueling and bureaucratic process of getting a work visa, and it's understandable why these new visas are so appealing.

While it can still be challenging to navigate the requirements of these new visas, this diplomatic easing is a sign that Latin American governments see the value of investing in tech talent. As the U.S. cracks down on H1-B visas for skilled workers, more tech companies are setting up offices in Latin America where they can still hire talented foreigners without the visa hassle.

Related: 4 Lessons U.S. Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Latin American Startup Culture

Here are a few of the new visas which are helping businesses combat chronic shortages in tech talent and boosting nascent tech ecosystems across Latin America.

Start-Up Chile's Tech Visa

When I applied for my permanent residency visa in Chile, it took endless paperwork and weeks of waiting to receive my visa, after an opaque and frustrating application process. But, with the new tech visa, launched by President Michelle Bachelet in 2017, it takes just 15 days to process from start to finish. The new visa is designed to incentivize talented entrepreneurs and engineers to move to Chile to work for technology companies.

According to the Start-Up Chile website, the tech visa is for "any foreign professional or technician in the areas of science and technology or with proven experience in innovation." These professionals can work for any company with sponsorship from InvestChile, startups in Start-Up Chile or local companies with a letter of invitation from the Undersecretariat of Economy.

Start-Up Chile has accelerated over 1,700 startups and brought thousands of entrepreneurs to Chile to develop their businesses with its $40,000 equity-free grants and mentorship programs. This new visa helps Chile continue attracting top talent for these startups to operate in Chile.

It is also relatively easy to get a visa even without the new program, through the temporary investor or business-person visa, the opportunity visa (for those that want to work in Chile for 12 months) and the international or national orientation visa (for those that studied in a top 200 university internationally, or pursued a master's in Chile).

Related: The International Entrepreneur Rule Wasn't Perfect, but the Trump Administration Killing It Sends the Wrong Message, Experts Say

Mexico's alternative to the H1-B Visa

President Donald Trump is making it no secret that the DREAM Act is under threat. This Obama-era legislation allows children brought to the United States as undocumented immigrants to stay in the country and potentially gain permanent residence. However, as the future has become increasingly uncertain for these young people, Mexico has opened its doors to these "Dreamers" and skilled talent from around the world to work in its new tech centers in Mexico City and Guadalajara.

International tech companies like Amazon and Oracle are hiring engineers and programmers in Mexico as English-speaking Mexican millennials flood back into the country. Bismarck Lepe's San Francisco-based development company, Wizeline, famously hired hundreds of skilled engineers in Guadalajara.

The state of Jalisco, home of "Mexico's Silicon Valley" Guadalajara, in February 2018 debuted an initiative called JalisConnect, which provides a "soft landing" for foreign entrepreneurs in Mexico. The program provides an office, administration, staffing and other services that help startups easily transition to operating in Mexico.

At the same time, JalisConnect launched a tech visa that provides a four-year temporary residence visa to any entrepreneur in the program. According to Nearshore Americas, holders of the tech visa can stay in Mexico as long as they receive all their income from the country where their company is registered. Once you meet the requirements, the government of Jalisco can issue the visa in 24 hours.

For those that want to work in Mexico, there are two visa options: the visa for business travel (any paid activities) and the temporary visa. Both of these require an application and payment, as well as an invitation letter from the company that will be hiring you, and your financial records. As the U.S. continues to restrict visas for skilled workers, Mexico is helping foreign talent find work just south of the border.

Related: The Entrepreneurial Case for Tech Investing in Emerging Markets

Colombia's new visa system

Colombia updated their visa regulations in December 2017 to create three categories of visas: visitor, migrant and resident. These visas encompass previous permits provided by the Colombian government and added new categories, most of which reside within the migrant (M) visa category. Specifically, the M-6 and M-10 visas, which provide three-year residence in return for investments in Colombia, are common ways for foreigners to obtain residency in Colombia. Previously, visas for investors had to be renewed yearly, creating a bureaucratic nuisance that pushed VCs to look elsewhere.

The M-6 visa (previously the TP-7 visa) provides residence for foreigners who "have constituted or acquired participation in the capital stock in a commercial company valued at least 100 times the minimum monthly wage in Colombia."

The minimum wage in Colombia is 781,242 Colombian pesos, so the minimum investment to receive this visa is $26,042 (at a $1:3,000 Colombian peso exchange rate). This new visa makes it possible for venture capitalists and other investors to easily gain residence in Colombia and make a longer-term impact on the local ecosystem. The M-10 real estate investment visa is similar but requires a real estate investment of over 350 times the minimum wage, or $91,144.

While the new visas closely resemble Colombia's previous system, the extended residency period makes it possible for foreign investors to invest in Colombia for the long term. These new laws minimize bureaucratic hassle and encourage foreigners to look at Colombian companies and startups as viable investment opportunities.

Related: Why 'Hacking' Your Way Into the U.S. Market Via Latin America Makes Sense for Your European Startup

Investment visas

Although Chile, Mexico and Colombia are the most recent countries to debut tech and investor visas to spur their entrepreneurial ecosystems, investment visas are available in many countries across Latin America.

For instance, in Brazil, a $150,000 investment grants you and your family Brazilian citizenship and passport for at least four years, and the entire process is remote, except for picking up your new passport. Panama allows permanent residency with a $160,000 investment, and the visa can be fast-tracked if you are from one of 50 "Friendly Nations" (including the U.S. and several Latin American countries). Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and several others also have investment visas at various price points that allow business owners and investors to gain permanent residence by investing in local businesses or government bonds.

Tech talent is in high demand worldwide. Latin American governments are investing in attracting foreign entrepreneurs and engineers and are reaping the benefits of stronger economies and more secure futures for their workforces. Countries like Chile, Mexico and Colombia are now further incentivizing immigration by creating simplified visas for talented workers who can produce local business development. While the U.S. continues pushing back against this trend, Latin America is opening its borders to international tech talent who are supporting startups and innovation across the region.

Nathan Lustig

Managing Partner at Magma Partners

Nathan Lustig is managing partner at Magma Partners, a seed stage investment fund with offices in the US, Latin America, and China. He is an investor in companies with Latin American back offices whose primary market is the U.S. and B2B companies that target the Latin American market.

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