“I wish more people had experience working with immigrant entrepreneurs,” says Ginger Imster. “Once you’ve witnessed their talent and passion, there is simply no doubt they’re a positive addition to our communities.” Imster knows this well. She is the executive director of Arch Grants, a nonprofit organization that provides $50,000 grants and support services to entrepreneurs who locate their early-stage businesses in St. Louis.
Arch Grants attracts international talent to St. Louis through programs like the Global Startup Competition, which has received applications from more than 80 countries since 2012. “We proactively seek immigrant applicants as a means of creating a more diverse and disruptive entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Imster explains. The strategy has paid off: Around 32 percent of active Arch Grant companies have at least one immigrant founder.
Imster has seen foreign entrepreneurs thrive in St. Louis, both economically and civically. “Not only do immigrant entrepreneurs build new businesses and create jobs, they’re also passionate about contributing to our community,” she says. “We’ve seen a willingness to participate in community engagement and capacity-building in our region.” This has been warmly welcomed in St. Louis, a city that has suffered from demographic and economic stagnation in recent decades.
Yet Imster says the U.S. immigration system limits the positive impact that foreign-born entrepreneurs can have in St. Louis and other American cities. “Our current immigration policy is geared toward getting foreign-born individuals to fill existing jobs rather than encouraging the creation of new companies and, with them, new American jobs,” Imster says. “It makes no sense.”
Delays in visa applications also pose challenges for many Arch Grant recipients. “Our entrepreneurs are awarded an Arch Grant one year, but the visa system means they often can’t enter the country until the next year,” she explains. “These delays are detrimental, especially for a new business.”
Our current immigration policy is geared toward getting foreign-born individuals to fill existing jobs rather than encouraging the creation of new companies and, with them, new American jobs. It makes no sense.
Without an overhaul of the federal immigration system, Imster fears that St. Louis will miss out on new technologies and businesses—to the detriment of the city’s economy and culture. “We live in a global world, a global economy,” Imster says. “U.S. immigration policy must evolve to ensure our country can attract and retain professionals who will ensure the U.S. economy can be even more resilient domestically and more competitive globally.”