VC boss who came to the U.S. as a child refugee: ‘Without immigration, the American Dream is just a fantasy’


When I was nine, I left the Soviet Union and eventually settled in the United States as a refugee. I studied at Columbia and MIT, developed businesses, ran accelerator programs, and launched my own VC firm to support the growth of U.S. businesses. If the United States’ borders had been more restricted at the time, I likely would have taken those skills to more welcoming climes.

This is what I fear is starting to happen as U.S. immigration policy continues to focus on shutting people out rather than drawing them in. America risks losing its reputation as the “land of the free.”

It’s a classic case of not knowing how good you have it till it’s gone. Already, skilled foreigners are opting to live in more welcoming countries than the United States, and countries such as Canada are actively poaching foreign talent from within the U.S.

If we continue to successfully dissuade people from building a life in our country with border walls and red tape, it will eventually throw the nation into a labor and economic crisis–and all politicians know this.

It feels like the country has forgotten the American dream and the values it was founded on, with dire consequences to come for the economy and businesses. It’s time for the private sector to play a greater role in steadying the nation’s moral compass.

Lost talent

Of every 10 international undergraduate students in the U.S., only one stays and lives in the country after their degree (even though 77% of international students who’ve done practical training in the country would like to remain).

While the United States seems to be trying its hardest to dissuade people from entering the country with a hellish visa process, other countries are actively trying to entice skilled talent to come and contribute to the knowledge economy. Many foreigners who studied in the U.S. are now moving to other countries. The UK has just issued a special visa for those graduating from top U.S. and international universities. Canada’s new policy encourages all H-1B visa holders to move over with their families.

All this is happening while the United States faces a real risk of a knowledge recession of sorts, given how hard the education system was hit during the pandemic. We simply can’t afford to lose talent.

Supporting immigration is therefore not just a moral argument but also an economic one. Generation after generation of immigrant families bolsters every echelon of the labor force. Between 1995 and 2022, immigrants and their children represented 70% of U.S. labor force growth. Politicians would do well to remember that when they ponder today’s talent shortages.

While it’s true that the U.S. is in a different situation to many countries and that it still receives overwhelming visa requests every year, it can’t rest on its laurels and just expect that foreigners will continue to indefinitely struggle for a chance to live here. The American dream is just that, a dream, and the more at odds it is with reality (while other countries step up) the more that dream will vanish in the global imagination.

As politicians worry over how their policy decisions affect their re-election chances, the private sector can step up and do something about immigration policy–or also suffer the consequences. Businesses and academic institutions can collaborate with foreign governments to launch local educational or entrepreneurial campaigns. They can form networks that act as a safety net, support system, and a source of advice for immigrants in specific fields. They can also reach out directly to government officials, inviting them to events about foreign entrepreneurship and academic research, to get them more involved.

An uneven tech race

Today, countries around the world are pushing to gain an upper hand in innovating around tech and AI. China and the U.S. have been going toe-to-toe on semiconductor development, and may soon be doing the same with generative AI.

Global stability requires superpowers to develop technological and defense capabilities at an equal pace. In the U.S., perhaps more than in any other nation, startup innovation is critical to supporting our tech and defense development.

If the U.S. wants to keep up with the pace of global development, it’s in our interest to make America an attractive destination for immigrants to work and live. There’s no knowing who will come up with world-changing tech, but one thing’s for sure: They will possess a lot of qualities that immigrants demonstrate–the determination to achieve high goals and the desire to truly impact the place they call home. Many have gone through incredible hardship to get here, and do not shy away from challenging ventures.

It’s no coincidence that 77% of the country’s top AI companies were founded by immigrants or their children, according to a just-published NFAP study. Nor that immigrants are more likely to work in STEM fields, contribute to innovation, register patents, and the list goes on.

Again, the U.S. private sector can do more to help: supporting academic institutions in their offerings, providing more funding specifically for immigrant entrepreneurs launching companies or carrying out research, and partnering up to build bridges between education and employment or entrepreneurship.

More than pitting one country’s tech sector against the other, a free flow of people means a free flow of ideas, tech progress, and knowledge.

A depleted domestic workforce

Without immigration, the U.S. population would start to shrink within 20 years. That is already true of certain U.S. demographics, and it’s already happening in countries such as China, Russia, and Italy. The consequences of an aging population are vast and include less tax revenue, labor shortages, and lost productivity.

Immigrants are empirically more driven and successful entrepreneurs. Though they represent 14% of the population, they are 25% of startup founders and 55% of unicorn founders.

A 2021 study found that, if all undocumented migrants in the United States were to have a pathway to citizenship, it would grow the U.S. GDP by $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years, increase annual wages for all citizens, and create almost 440,000 new jobs.

Businesses need to be more vocal about how immigration policy affects them. Those who do not see the evident injustices and risks of restricting migration need to open their eyes to the economic reality. If you can, cheerlead the contributions of immigrants working within your company or ecosystem. If you have internal data or case studies that can contribute to the discussion, put them out there for all to see. Elevate the conversation to a place that balances moral imperatives with logical ones.

Wealth is not the amount of land a country has–it’s defined by how many people in that land want to create value. And that is precisely what drives so many immigrants–the desire to lead lives, build, earn, and thrive in a new country.

We must recognize the potential of all humans. The American dream is a reputation that has been earned–and that mustn’t be squandered. Ultimately, adopting a more moral policy is the right thing to do, and that will, as always, align with what’s best for our country.

Semyon Dukach is the founding partner and managing director of One Way Ventures, a VC firm funding exceptional immigrant founders. A Ukrainian-American, he came to the U.S. as a child refugee in 1979. He is the former managing director of Techstars (Boston), and an angel investor in over 100 companies.

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The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.


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