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Immigration Policy as a Tool for American Innovation: A Conversation with USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas

Immigration Policy as a Tool for American Innovation: A Conversation with USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas

Nov 28, 2012

On Wednesday, November 28th, 2012, MIT will welcome to campus the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Alejandro Mayorkas. Director Mayorkas assumed leadership of USCIS in August 2009 and, in October 2011, launched the Entrepreneurs in Residence initiative.

The Entrepreneurs in Residence (EIR) initiative is designed to guide USCIS in optimizing existing immigration law to make the U.S. more welcoming to immigrant entrepreneurs and investors. The initiative brings a team of entrepreneurs and industry experts into the folds of USCIS to advise USCIS on how best to improve existing policies and operations to attract and retain highly skilled workers, entrepreneurs, and investors.

I had a chance to speak with Director Mayorkas – or “Ali,” as he’s often called – about the USCIS Entrepreneurs in Residence program and its progress thus far, as well as his goals for Wednesday’s town hall at MIT.

U.S. immigration policy has traditionally rested on three primary pillars: family unification, refuge, and economic prosperity. Director Mayorkas offered a compelling summary of the primary motivations underlying the EIR initiative, reflecting an understanding of the importance of updating immigration policy to work with changing business realities.

“It’s in the realm of economic prosperity that the EIR program really blossomed. We’re [USCIS] usually used to evaluating applications of businesses that seek business-based visas, with a history of revenue, well-established and delineated business plans, with floor plans. Or, we review applications for established small businesses with a history of productivity. But the model has shifted to one or two individuals who operate out of a cubicle with VC or seed funding. We want to know ‘how does that paradigm fit into our adjudication framework?’ This includes training adjudicators to identify startups that might qualify for existing visa categories, and trying to ensure that existing law attracts and captures individuals that are trying to start a venture.”

The EIR initiative was launched in October 2011. I asked Director Mayorkas how the program has progressed since its inception. He offered an enthusiastic response about the positive outcomes the EIR initiative has realized thus far:

“I think it has exceeded our expectations. There was one critical focus of ours when we initially launched the initiative. That was to bridge the divide between our agency and the rapidly changing business landscape that we touched through the adjudication of immigration benefits. 

We brought in entrepreneurs [through EIR] to educate us about the changes occurring in the business world and entrepreneurial and start-up world so we could adjudicate mindful of the realities of business.

The entrepreneurs developed new training programs and content [for USCIS adjudicators]. The entrepreneurs-in-residence spent time around the country with our adjudicators and were embraced more than we’d ever imagined.”

But a criticism all too familiar in the realm of utilizing policy mechanisms to foster innovation or entrepreneurship is that the government takes on the role of deciding winners and losers. To clear the air on this question with respect to USCIS’s EIR initiative, I asked Ali how the existing body of immigration policy would attempt to identify those prospective immigrant entrepreneurs most likely to succeed, create value, and generate jobs. He clarified that USCIS does not take on the role of choosing winners. Rather, USCIS evaluates known, concrete qualifications and experiences of entrepreneurs – including education and past and present professional experience.

“It is hard to define and operationalize who is most likely to succeed, but that’s really not the job of the laws as they’re currently designed. They don’t guide us in our adjudications in what [venture] might succeed or not; but rather, they ask the question of: ‘does the profile of the entrepreneur meet the eligibility criteria?’ But future success is not one of those criteria. One of the parts of comprehensive immigration law is: do the current immigration laws attract entrepreneurs or start-ups, or are they geared towards traditional business ventures?”

Thus far in our conversation, the emphasis was on working within the framework of existing law and optimizing existing policies and operations. But I was curious to hear about Director Mayorkas’ musings on possible legislative changes to immigration law, such as adding new visa categories like a “startup visa.”

“I think that statutory changes are needed to really promote our country’s competitiveness in an increasingly international market. There have been efforts before for startup visas, and now immigration reform is a major issue. President Obama is certainly behind immigration reform efforts. We hope that reform will occur so that avenues are broader and more vibrant for retaining talent.”

So, what does this all mean for students and institutions like MIT?  MIT’s Office of the Provost reports that international students comprise 10% of undergraduate students and 40% of graduate students.1 I asked Director Mayorkas if the EIR initiative devotes any focus to international students who might innovate while in school and potentially launch a company in the U.S.

“This is an area of tremendous focus. I recently spoke at Stanford – at the business school – and so many of the individuals graduating or working towards graduation were not interested in joining big Wall Street institutions, but rather were really interested in starting their own ventures and being entrepreneurs. For those born in other countries and on student visas, we want to know how they can start their ventures in the U.S. rather than having to return to their countries… How can we work within the framework [of immigration policy] to retain students?”

That sounds pretty good from a domestic perspective, but how does the U.S. strategically consider and address the incentive other countries have to stave off brain drain – to send their students to school in the U.S. and then get them back home?

“President Obama has talked about brain drain. Students come here to be educated, but then return to their home countries. So, we are educating our competition. It comes down to: there is a global market for competition, and we [the U.S.] want to be competitive.”

And what are the implications for MIT and other universities? Well, Director Mayorkas indicated that the implications are yet to be shaped, and universities will shape them. Ali shared what he sees as the primary role of universities such as MIT in the EIR initiative:

“There are a number of aspects:

We need students and universities to present to us (as the administrative agency implementing immigration law) to inform us of the challenges of attracting and retaining talent. We need [students and universities] to bring their ideas forward of what it would take for us to attract more talent and for talent to stay here. In essence the students are our potential customers of tomorrow.”

And one such opportunity for students and the MIT community to share ideas and insights will present itself on Wednesday, November 28th at the town hall meeting with Director Mayorkas. When asked what are his goals for the MIT town hall meeting, Director Mayorkas replied:

“To provoke thoughts for change… we are putting it to the students.”

So, students and greater MIT community, answer Director Mayorkas’ clarion call to share your thoughts, perspectives, and ideas to revive the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that courses through this nation’s veins.

For more information about the town hall meeting with Director Mayorkas on November 28, 2012 and to register to attend, please see: http://entrepreneurship.mit.edu/event/immigration-entrepreneurship


About the EIR Initiative

The EIR Initiative was launched as part of Startup America, a broader initiative by the White House to foster entrepreneurship in the United States.  Through EIR, USCIS aims to utilize industry and entrepreneurial expertise to clarify and enhance existing immigration policy so that the U.S. better attracts and retains immigrant entrepreneurs.

In December 2011, the White House described specific outcomes of the EIR initiative: 2

–       “Entrepreneurs know exactly which visa categories are most appropriate for their particular circumstances, based on clear public materials.”

–       “USCIS’s policies, practices, and training better reflect the realities faced by foreign entrepreneurs and startup businesses.”

–       “USCIS’s workforce is better equipped to adjudicate cases in today’s complex and rapidly evolving business environment.”

For more information about the EIR initiative, visit the USCIS EIR website.

–Ash Bharatkumar

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series of MITER articles discussing US immigration policy as it relates to entrepreneurship. Stay tuned for the second and final article.


1 http://web.mit.edu/ir/pop/students/index.html

2 http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/12/13/got-startup-experience-help-enhance-pathways-immigrant-entrepreneurs


One comment

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