Arguing that Silicon Valley and the nation are "losing talent and jobs by the day to countries like Canada, Chile and the United Kingdom," a bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Wednesday introduced a bill to grant up to 75,000 visas each year to immigrant startup entrepreneurs and 50,000 to students with advanced science and engineering degrees from American universities.

The Startup Act 3.0 is one of a flurry of visa bills as Democrats and Republicans debate a large-scale overhaul of immigration.

"I love it, basically," said Stanford Law School's Vivek Wadhwa, an advocate for expanding visas for the highly skilled.

Bay Area immigrants already here on temporary work or student visas could stay permanently if they start a company that raises or invests at least $100,000 and has at least five full-time workers throughout its first three years.

Fifty-two percent of Silicon Valley startups were founded or co-founded by immigrants between 1995 and 2005, but the rate dropped to 42 percent in the past seven years, according to surveys. Wadhwa blames mounting visa backlogs.

"Typically, company founders came to Silicon Valley as students and started their companies 13 years later," Wadhwa said. "Now, people who came here as students ... can't start companies."


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The bill would also relieve Indian and Chinese temporary immigrants stuck in decade-long visa backlogs by eliminating the cap on how many people from any one country can get permanent residency.

Among the bill's backers is AOL founder and venture capitalist Steve Case, who testified at a Senate hearing Wednesday about the danger of losing the race for talent to countries with more attractive visa laws.

"We're making it harder for innovators to come and stay," Case said.

The bill was introduced Wednesday by U.S. senators Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; and Roy Blunt, R-Mo. The bill could be folded into the comprehensive legislation that President Barack Obama, most Democrats and some Republicans want this year.

Divisions, however, are emerging between those arguing for quick passage of politically popular, high-skill immigration bills and those seeking broader changes affecting the country's 11 million illegal immigrants and border security.

"Right now we have people fighting for the undocumented, unskilled workers who are holding Silicon Valley hostage," said Wadhwa, who Republicans invited to testify to Congress last week. "I agree with that cause, but I don't agree that we should keep Silicon Valley hostage."

"We should get the startup visa act passed ASAP and then go back to the big battles," he added.

Case, however, on Wednesday told senators that immigration reform should be comprehensive and include a citizenship path for illegal immigrants.The legislation met some concerns of opponents of existing high-skill visas by not tethering foreign workers to their sponsoring employers, as the H-1B does.

Still, "this is an addition" to current visas, said Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild. "None of this language says it has to create a single job for an American."

The entrepreneur visa could be used to start a pizza joint or car wash, not just "the next Google (GOOG), IBM or Intel (INTC)," and the graduate degree visas could flood U.S. schools with foreign students admitted because they pay higher tuition, Berry said.

high-tech visa plan
The bipartisan Startup Act 3.0 introduced Wednesday in the Senate would in part:
  • Create a new visa for up to 50,000 foreign students who graduate from an American university with a master's or doctorate degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the STEM fields
  • Grant those visa recipients conditional status as long as they remain actively engaged in a STEM field for five consecutive years. After conditional status, the visa holder would become a permanent legal resident with the option to become a citizen.
  • Create a new visa for up to 75,000 immigrant entrepreneurs who hold an H-1B work visa or F-1 student visa and who during the one-year period after the new visa is issued register at least one new business entity starting with at least two full-time employees who are not relatives and invests or raises capital investments of at least $100,000; and sustains at least five full-time employees over three years
  • End the per-country numerical limit on employment-based immigrant visas and adjust the limits on family-based visa petitions from 7 percent per country to 15 percent without increasing the total number of visas.