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Why The U.S. Must Welcome Top Talent Before It Travels Elsewhere


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Every year at CES, I'm amazed by the caliber of international tech talent on display. From biotech innovators creating new wearables , to developers building smart city  technology, to engineers bringing life to the next wave of artificial intelligence  and robotics, the world's best and brightest always bring a glimpse of the future to CES.

[ibd-display-video id=3078928 width=50 float=left autostart=true] The international presence at CES reinforces for me how important immigration policy is to innovation and economic growth here in the U.S. Immigrants make up between 20% and 25%  of U.S. STEM workers, but we lack the meaningful consensus on strategic immigration reform that would enable more immigrant innovators to set up shop here. In fact, we haven't made any substantive changes to our immigration system since the 1990 s.

This means we're falling behind - and that other nations are capitalizing on our neglect. Canada's Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen - himself an immigrant - has said publicly this is part of Canada's strategy to gain top talent. "More and more countries … are closing their doors to people, they are closing their doors to talent and to skills."

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Canada is off to a great start. It has implemented  the Global Talent Stream program - an expedited, two-week processing system designed to get top talent into the country as swiftly as possible. They also  launched  the Atlantic Immigration Pilot Program, which allows 250 Canadian employers to recruit skilled foreign workers, bringing a total of 2,000 new workers into Canada. And in the private sector, a venture capital firm called Extreme Venture Partners is offering U.S. startups the opportunity to move north to Canada by obtaining visas for them.

Britain, Australia and France are using similar tactics. Last November, the UK government doubled  the number of visas it offers to people with "exceptional talent" in technology, science and creative industries. France developed a visa for tech workers  to strengthen the country's startup scene. In Australia, seven in 10  immigrants are allowed entry because they fill key STEM jobs - a stark contrast to America, where less than 20% who are admitted can fill these jobs.

Simply put, if the U.S. does not start now on immigration reform, we will no longer be the world's leader in innovation or the nation of choice  for ingenious, enterprising immigrants. This week at CES, we released our first-ever International Innovation Scorecard , evaluating 38 countries and the EU on policies that promote entrepreneurship and innovation. While the U.S. scores well across the board, it falls behind some other countries when it comes to diversity, a category that evaluates immigration policy among other factors.

With the start of the new year, we must make strategic immigration reform a top priority. We have only 85,000 H-1B visas  available for foreign workers - and we hit the cap within four days of opening last year. And while our universities continue to attract the best and brightest from around the world, our laws force these young innovators to leave almost as soon as they're handed their diplomas.

Policymakers don't need to start from scratch on this issue. We can make our country more immigrant- and innovation-friendly by reinstating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or a similar program. Ninety-one percent  of DACA recipients are employed and 75%  of America's biggest companies have DACA employees. There are several common-sense bills in Congress to address the issue, including one recently introduced by Republican Congressman Will Hurd and Democrat Pete Aguilar.

Congress should also pass the Bipartisan Startup Act , a bill from leaders across the aisle and across the country. It would create 75,000 visas for top-notch entrepreneurs and 50,000 visas for STEM workers with a U.S. graduate degree. And it gets rid of the per-country limits on visas that prevent employers from hiring the most accomplished, most capable innovators. The U.S. could also consider creating a points-based visa system, which the World Economic Forum says is a better way to attract high-skilled workers than our current demand-based system.

And the administration and Congress must work together to make sure that international entrepreneurs are able to continue innovating and creating jobs in the U.S. by supporting the International Entrepreneur Rule. This rule allows foreign entrepreneurs to stay in the United States if they their startups have raised at least $250,000 from qualified investors and can create jobs and grow.

Bipartisan agreement - and real change - is a tall order: Immigration is an infamously contentious issue, and much of the rhetoric on Capitol Hill only worsens the situation and tightens the gridlock. But ultimately, strategic immigration reform is a practical matter.

We are a nation of immigrants, and our system is designed to bring together conflicting perspectives, worldviews and ideas, so the best ones can emerge. CES is a beautiful picture of that, and it's a great note on which to start the year. But we are also running behind, and if we don't act to get the smartest, most-skilled workers, they will simply go elsewhere.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.



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