WASHINGTON - The bill that would make it easier for entrepreneurs from foreign countries to start companies in the U.S. and eventually become citizens is back, and its sponsors are looking to rally local support.

The Startup Visa Act was introduced Wednesday by Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. The legislation would create a new category of visas to allow entrepreneurs who are foreign-nationals to work in the United States if they have formed companies, received at least $100,000 from investors and created at least five jobs or raised $500,000 in revenue within two years.

Both Udall and Flake said the bill would create jobs by making the U.S. more attractive to foreign entrepreneurs.

"The United States has a proud history of creating opportunity for entrepreneurs from around the world by giving them a home to innovate and create jobs," Udall said in a press release. "That's why I have fought in Congress to pass the Startup Visas Act - legislation supported by both Democrats and Republicans, as well as President Obama - as part of comprehensive immigration reform. We are a stronger and better country because of our immigrants."

This is the third time the bill has been introduced and the first time Udall has been a primary sponsor, Udall's communications director Mike Saccone said.

Prior bills, including one in 2011 that Udall signed on as a cosponsor, did not receive enough support to be enacted despite bipartisan sponsorship. Udall's office is optimistic that a new bipartisan push for immigration reform could help the bill get passed this time.

"There's a growing consensus on immigration reform that Congress has to do something and will do something," Saccone said.

The startup bill received the support of President Barak Obama during a speech Tuesday that outlined his immigration reform ideas. A bipartisan group of senators also has released a framework that could be the basis for comprehensive immigration reform.

Past efforts have received the vocal support of Boulder-based entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, including Foundry Group managing directors Jason Mendelson and Brad Feld.

Mendelson testified before Congress in support of the 2011 bill, and wrote in an email that he's encouraged and thinks the political terrain has become more favorable.

"I am more optimistic than ever. I plan to out all my weight and effort behind it for sure," Mendelson wrote.
When asked why he's optimistic, Mendelson responded in a succinct email.

"Bipartisan macro bill introduced.  Senate is on. President is on. House I don't know but I think the republican slaughter from Hispanic voters may change their minds," he wrote.

Feld, who could not be reached Wednesday, was an enthusiastic campaigner for past bills, but recently expressed growing frustration with the politics around the bill and immigration reform.

"...I've heard from a number of political insider friends that 'the vote math doesn't work,'" Feld wrote in a Jan. 25 blog post. "I've learned that this means it is an incredible uphill battle to get anything passed, and the compromise that is going to happen to get certain people in Congress to support the bills means that the 'tradeoffs and compromises' (which the more cynical among us - including me - means 'the political bribes they need to agree to vote a certain way') are going to be extensive."

Saccone said Udall and the bill's other sponsors will try to rally past supporters as they navigate the bill through the legislative process. Past bills were sponsored by veteran Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar, but it is up to Udall, who is in his first term, and Flake, who was elected last year, to steer the bill through this time around.

Outreach to business leaders will be a critical part of their work.

"There's a coalition that's supporting this, and we'll be working with them," Saccone said.

When the Senate would take up the Startup Visa Act remains to be determined.

"We certainly would want it to be done as soon as possible," Saccone said.

The number of visas that could be allocated under the act is to be determined, Saccone said.  

The nuts and bolts of the bill could change. The version introduced Wednesday establishes what appear to be strict criteria for what entrepreneurs could qualify.

The support of investors, either venture capitalists or "super angel" investors, is critical. Entrepreneurs must obtain at least $100,000 from investors, and the bill spells out criteria the investors must meet for their investment to count.

The company also must create at least five full-time jobs in the U.S. within two years, and the employees cannot be the spouse or children of the visa recipient.  

Entrepreneurs also must raise at least $500,000 in capital investment and generate at least $500,000 in revenue within two years of receiving their visas.

The entrepreneurs also must hold an H1-B visa, which allows foreigners to temporarily work in the U.S. and often is utilized by tech workers, or have completed a graduate degree in a scientific or engineering subject.

Entrepreneurs who make it through the two-year process then would be able to apply for standard "green cards," which give them permanent resident status without the conditions related to their startups. In time, they could become full U.S. citizens, Saccone said.

While the bill might allow more entrepreneurs to come to the U.S., it actually doesn't expand the total number of visas that can be issued, Saccone said. The allotment of visas would be taken from the EB-5 visa program, which was established to give visas to immigrants who invested at least $1 million into new or troubled companies.

Ironically, the EB-5 category was established in 1990 to lure wealthy foreigners to come to the U.S. to invest. It doesn't seem to have worked, with the program being "essentially unused," Saccone said.

At the moment, the startup bill is the first piece of immigration reform legislation to be introduced. Whether the Startup Visa Act would remain a stand-alone bill, be one of several bills passed in conjunction with each other or part of a single all-encompassing bill is to be determined, Saccone said.