With about 1 million immigrants settling here every year, immigration to the U.S. is at its highest level in decades. And if the past is any guide, those newcomers will start businesses at a greater rate than native-born residents.
Researchers speculate that immigrants' greater entrepreneurial tendencies are due in part to their youthfulness (a greater percentage fall into the prime age range for starting up businesses), and to the fact that immigrants in general exhibit a high level of risk-taking, motivation, and ambitions -- the same traits that typify successful entrepreneurs.
What kinds of business do they start? Traditional mom-and-pop retail establishments, which demand long hours and little capital, are still a popular choice. But a growing number of immigrant entrepreneurs are starting New Economy businesses in high-technology and service industries. To make their companies succeed, they often tap into networks of their fellow countrymen or employ workers back in their homeland.
Immigrants also bring investment capital with them. The number of intra-company transfer visas, the L-1 visa, issued to investor-entrepreneurs since 1970, has more than tripled over the past decade, from 14,342 in 1990 to 54,963 last year, according to State Department figures.
The L-1, however, is just one avenue for would-be immigrant entrepreneurs dreaming of an American business experience. There are many other special visas.
Figuring out which might apply to an individual's situation, however, is to wade through an alphabet soup. BusinessWeek Small Biz asked immigration lawyer William Z. Reich, of Buffalo, (N.Y.)-based Serotte, Reich & Seipp, to explain some of the more popular visa options for immigrant entrepreneurs. Each has its own unique qualifications, and their duration varies. Only two of the nonimmigrant visas explained below, the L-1 and the H1b visa, are convertible to a green card.
B-1 -- VISITOR FOR BUSINESS:
Who Can Use It: People who are coming to the U.S. to investigate business opportunities.
To qualify: You must demonstrate that you have strong commitments in your home country and do not intend to settle here. Such criteria include an existing business in your home country, employment there, ownership of property, and family ties back home. You should also have documentation to prove you have an itinerary of meetings with businesses or brokers here in the U.S.
Duration: The B-1 grants admission for up to one year with a six-month extension.
E-1 -- TRADER'S VISA:
Who Can Use It: Businessmen and women intending to engage in trade between their home countries and the U.S. in accordance with a treaty involving bilateral commerce.
To qualify: Your home country must have such a treaty with the U.S. and your company must do more than 50 percent of its trading with a U.S. Corporation.
Duration: It varies by treaty, but is typically granted for periods of between two and five years.
E-2 -- INVESTOR'S VISA:
Who Can Use It: Investors who have invested substantially in a U.S. corporation - meaning that they now control and direct that concern. The investment can be for the purchase an existing business or start a new one. This visa is also based upon treaties between the U.S. and other countries.
Duration: typically two to five years.
L-1 -- INTRA-COMPANY TRANSFER VISA:
Who Can Use It: This is best for entrepreneurs who have an existing business abroad and want to set up a U.S. operation. Unlike the E-1 or E-2, the L-1 can be converted to the green card after one year of successful business in the U.S.
How To qualify: The applicant must form an active company, acquire office premises in the U.S,. and use financial documentation to prove affiliation.
Duration: a maximum of seven years.
H1-B -- SPECIALTY OCCUPATION (PROFESSIONAL) VISA:
Who can Use It: immigrants who want to get work experience in their industry before starting up their own businesses, or entrepreneurs who want to hire skilled workers from their home country.
To Qualify: must be skilled ,specialized employees who are going to work at a specific company.
Duration: Three years, plus a three-year extension.
By Naween Mangi in New York
Edited by Robin Schatz