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Immigrants Continue To Drive American Innovation To New Heights

In this Jan. 9, 2009 file photo, Emilie Barta with Intel demonstrates on a Lenovo netbook at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

CREDIT: AP/Jae C. Hong, file.

What do car-hailing service Uber, cloud-based HR resource Zenefits, and rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Inc. have in common? Besides being a few of the highest valued companies in the U.S., these big-name startups all began with bright and innovative ideas: straight from the minds of immigrants.

Immigrants now launch more than a quarter of U.S. businesses, despite accounting for only 13 percent of the total population. In the Silicon Valley alone, immigrant founders created 52 percent of all new area companies between 1995 and 2005, according to Inc. Magazine,.

Still, the San Francisco Bay area startup hub remains a pretty insular place. And like the rest of the United States, it can get bogged down with negative political rhetoric around America’s broken and outdated immigration system instead of what’s most important: taking full advantage of our strength as an eclectic nation of creative individuals who have the potential to spur innovation and to rebuild the American Dream.

America’s greatest competitive advantage has always been a culture that openly welcomes brings the best and the brightest from around the world to our country. Unfortunately, immigration reform in Congress continues to stay at a standstill. We no longer have a system of immigration laws that work in today’s global economy—and it’s a problem that “has got to be fixed [because] the American economy depends on it,” says Ron Miller, the CEO of Santa Monica-based crowdfunding platform, StartEngine.

Diversity is a good thing, especially when it comes to the world of business. According to a new study by The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington D.C. think tank, highly educated immigrants play an “outsized role” in driving progress in technology in America, even as minorities tend to be significantly underrepresented in the industry.

The report, “The Demographics of Innovation in the United States” surveyed over 6,400 innovators who had impacted technology with new ideas in three fields: information technology, life sciences, and materials sciences, and the exhaustive survey’s findings says it all. More than one-third (35.5 percent) of major innovators in the U.S. were born outside of the country. Another ten percent were born in the U.S. but to at least one foreign-born parent. And more than 17 percent of innovators were not U.S. citizens at all.

It’s safe to assume that innovation and immigration tend to be synonymous in this day and age, as immigrant entrepreneurship has never been more impactful—the rate of U.S. startups doubled in 2014 when compared to the year 1996. The government’s inability to address immigration reform, however, is hampering the economy, FWD.us argues, in addition to representing “a humanitarian crisis.”

The Mark Zuckerberg-headed immigration advocacy group is a firm believer that innovation often comes from a certain defiance of the norm. The young tech mogul and Harvard dropout made strides into the Silicon Valley elite as a teenager, defying all expectations and industry standards. And though he himself is not an immigrant, Zuckerberg is in strong support for Obama’s DACA and DAPA executive actions, which is still waiting to be tested by the Supreme Court this summer.

Along with sixty other tech executives such as, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, and angel investor Ron Conway, the Facebook CEO is doubling down on his support to protect undocumented immigrants and to allow them to work legally in the United States. Together, they signed on to a brief submitted to the Supreme Court earlier this year, arguing that allowing the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country to contribute to the U.S. economy would greatly benefit the business and tech communities.

“Instead of inviting the economic contributions of immigrants, our immigration enforcement policies have often inhibited the productivity of U.S. companies and made it harder for them to compete in the global marketplace […] By contrast, the continuing threat of removal and other uncertainties facing undocumented individuals weaken our economy,” it says.

Miller wholeheartedly agrees: “The reality is that America is becoming more pluralistic than it’s ever been and so in order for us to grow our economy, we cannot just support Caucasian people—we have to support everybody based on the merits of their idea. Individual ideas should be funded based on the merits of the idea, not on the color of the skins of the people running the companies. And while many of us would agree with that—unfortunately, in practice, very few [immigrant] entrepreneurs have been successful.”

All of this is important to keep in mind as the entire nation waits for a final ruling to be made by SCOTUS in the United States v. Texas case. There are numerous difficulties and struggles awaiting immigrant entrepreneurs each and every day—immigrant youth still suffer from instability and stress that hinder further academic achievement and talented foreign-born graduates are forced to head home armed with advanced degrees from American universities all because of complex visa issues.

A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that businesses owned by immigrants employ one in 10 American workers, and in 2011, generated $775 billion in revenue. Immigrants have also founded 51 percent of U.S. billion-dollar startups, and among these companies, those immigrant founders have created on average 760 jobs per company in the U.S. Allowing such individuals to live and work in the U.S. without fear or limitations could increase federal revenue by $2.3 billion over ten years, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Perhaps what is most impressive is that despite all of the hardships, immigrants have continually managed to build successful companies and to add to American jobs—despite the continued costly obstacles they face within the American immigration system.

“As I travel around the world, I see many nations turning inwards. I hear growing voices for building walls and distancing people labeled as ‘other,’” Zuckerberg writes in a Facebook post:

“Whether it’s refugees, undocumented immigrants or underrepresented minorities, I hope we have the wisdom to understand that the best path forward is always to bring people together, not divide them. I hope we find the compassion and courage to give everyone a fair shot, to treat everyone with respect and dignity, and do what we can to make this world better for all people — not just people who look like us or live near us.”

“We are a nation of immigrants. We are one world. And we are all connected. We must have the humanity to welcome in these children and to bring people together.”

Temporary measures, executive actions, and partisan standoffs will simply not work anymore in a country that was built up by immigrants. Immigration reform is key to bringing fresh and innovative ideas to full life in the 21st century. It’s essential for economic, personal, and political growth, and it is time to look at the facts and to reach beyond unfounded fears.

“It’s strange. For many of us, the U.S. was the best place in the world to start a company. It has been for centuries,” says Jim Weldon, a Silicon-Valley based entrepreneur who works specifically with minority-owned companies. “If we don’t come up with ways for these people to stay and to build companies, we’re going to lose out, we all are.”

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