Lakshmi Challa Column: Immigrants Are Good For Virginia Business

Immigration has been front and center in this year’s election cycle, but missing from the debate is this simple fact: Immigrants are good for our economy. Virginia has struggled in recent years with slow economic growth. In June, the Department of Commerce indicated that Virginia’s GDP growth grew at a rate of 1.4 percent in 2015. While lackluster, this beat 2014’s zero-growth year.

We must consider innovative ways to further Virginia’s — as well as our country’s — economic success. One such avenue would be through the modernization of our immigration system. Earlier this month, the Partnership for a New American Economy (NAE) — a nonpartisan coalition of mayors and business leaders who support immigration reforms that will create jobs for Americans — released a comprehensive report that highlights the significant contributions of immigrants in the state of Virginia.

Virginia is home to the eighth-largest immigrant population in the United States; it has the largest immigrant community in the American southeast region. But these rankings are relatively recent: Between 1990 and 2010, the number of immigrants more than doubled from 5 percent to 11 percent. People from all over the world are increasingly attracted to what our proud state has to offer — and in return, they are eager to work hard and become active members of their communities.

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Packing up and moving to another country to build a new life is inherently bold and risky, so it comes as no surprise that immigrants typically have been an entrepreneurial group. Though they constitute only 12 percent of Virginia’s overall population, they represent more than 20 percent of our entrepreneurs. In 2014, these business owners contributed almost $2 billion in revenue to the state’s economy and paid almost $3 billion in state and local taxes.

Despite these successes, it is becoming increasingly difficult for entrepreneurs and employers to drive their businesses forward. The United States currently does not offer a startup visa to allow foreign-born entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to build their companies on American soil. In a world of steepening competition, we are losing out to countries like Canada, Australia, and Singapore, which are actively engaging and recruiting these entrepreneurial minds.

In failing to reform, the United States is potentially missing out on founders like John Philip Holland, who emigrated from Ireland and started General Dynamics, a Fortune 500 aerospace company based in Falls Church, Va. General Dynamics employs more than 8,000 people in Virginia and had annual sales of $31.5 billion in 2015.

In fact, eight of Virginia’s 19 Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. Included among these eight firms are notables like Capital One Financial, the Altria Group, and Dollar Tree. These economic giants provide jobs to more than 475,000 people and bring in nearly $110 billion in revenue annually. To edge out the competition in the global market, the United States needs to make it easier for forward-thinking entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into realities by leveraging U.S. resources and workers.

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Virginia is already feeling the negative effects of our outdated immigration system. Each year, the United States awards 85,000 high-skilled, foreign-born workers an H-1B visa. Year after year, demand outpaces supply, so theses visas are awarded through a randomized lottery system. In 2014, more than 25,700 H-1B visa applications were filed in Virginia. Had all of these applicants received an H-1B, they would have created an estimated 47,000 additional jobs in the state by 2020.

For Richmond, in particular, the more than 500 visa denials for H-1B workers cost U.S. computer-related workers approximately $8 million in aggregate wage growth between 2008 and 2010. We are simply missing out on tremendous economic potential by leaving money on the table.

Virginia deserves an updated, streamlined, and future-looking immigration system that both recognizes the valuable contributions of our immigrant community and creates jobs for more of our residents. Our future economic success hinges on it.

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