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Investors to Obama: We need more foreign workers

President Barack Obama says he'll take steps to freeze deportations temporarily for about 5 million undocumented immigrants, but it's the highly skilled workers, such as engineers and coders, who most concern investors and entrepreneurs.


Computer programmer
Gunnar Svanberg | Iconica | Getty Images

Shortly after Obama's announcement, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson sent a memo to the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, instructing them to take action to improve policies related to high-skilled businesses and workers, including how to deal with green cards, foreign graduates and entrepreneurs.

Among his proposals is one making it easier for "inventors, researchers and founders of start-up enterprises" to stay in the country for the purposes of "job creation ... or the pursuit of cutting-edge research."

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Last year, about 172,000 people filed for an H-1B worker's visa, but only about 65,000 were accepted. H-1B visas let employers employ foreign-born, skilled workers, especially those with expertise in computer science, mathematics and related fields. Many foreign nationals who earn advanced degrees at U.S. universities find themselves unable to stay and work after graduation because of the cap on H-1B visas.

CNBC spoke to entrepreneurs, investors and technology workers who favor of the liberalization of H-1B visa rules.

'I have to physically be here in the United States'

Immigration attorney Jacob Shapochnick focuses on start-ups and highly skilled workers, and his business is thriving because of the limitations of such visas. He told CNBC that comprehensive immigration reform needs to start with a targeted approach, rather than a one-size-fits-all model.

"We cannot find the qualified candidates to help drive our businesses forward," entrepreneur and investor Trevor Klein told CNBC. Klein sold his company autoanything.com to Autozone a few years ago for $150 million dollars and is now betting on a start-up called TV Page that employs a Dutch foreign national in one of the firm's key positions.

Lior Kuijer has a master's degree in artificial intelligence, specializing in machine learning, and is the worker behind a technology that allows retailers to sell products by featuring them in videos. It lets viewers click on the product in the video and be directed to a company's shopping page.

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Kuijer has a J1 visa that has let him stay in the country for the past 18 months; however, it will expire at the end of November, and chances are high that he will be deported to the Netherlands.

"Lots of uncertainty in a start-up company, and (it) just introduces another element, which is very frustrating," he said. "People depend on me. The company depends on me, and I have to physically be here in the United States."

Investors have put about $3 million into the company to date and are nervous about losing Kuijer.

"As a business owner and investor, I have a very personal side to this, which is I know how difficult it is to find these resources to fill these positions," Klein said. "If we stop allowing immigrants to come into this country that are extremely well versed in technology and finance, I think we are going to limit the growth of America."

'I'll just go back to India.'

Suman Kanuganti, an Indian national, has a work visa through his current employer, Intuit. His real passion, though, is for a new company and technology he has created that he says will allow blind people to become more independent.

He used Google Glass to create a way for the visually impaired to be directed by a person in real time who live-streams where that person is going. The product was tested recently during an annual vision walk benefiting the foundation for fighting blindness in San Diego, which San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer attended.

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Faulconer praised Suman's idea, but if the technology takes off, it might not stay in the United States for long.

If Kanuganti wants to develop the idea and company further, he would have to go through the lengthy immigration process all over again in the hopes of obtaining another visa. That's highly unlikely since there is no "founder's visa"—for people who actually create companies in the United States—currently offered, attorney Shapochnick, who is currently representing Kanuganti, told CNBC.

"What happens if I don't get it? Then I have to find another full-time job or go back to my home country," Kanuganti told CNBC. "If I had to do this in India, then the product would be tweaked.... Obviously, I'd like to take it to the next level here."