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Bill before Congress would give entrepreneurs citizenship opportunity

SCOTTSDALE – A bell rings as a customer enters Cafe Paris, and Caroline Catois greets him with a “Bonjour!” The customer attempts a few broken French phrases while Catois smiles, then they converse in English about their personal lives.

Catois and her husband, Arnold, opened the cafe after immigrating to the U.S. with their four children nine years ago. She said almost all their customers are regulars and are among the people they will miss if they are deported back to France.

The Catoises immigrated legally but have been unable to secure permanent resident status, a problem Caroline attributes to poor legal representation and backlog of applications with the U.S. State Department. They have remained on temporary work permits and visas and were approved for green cards for permanent residency in 2010.

It can take up to eight years to receive a green card after approval, and the Catoises’ visas expire in March. They will be deported unless they can renew their work permits in time.

“We’re being punished,” Caroline said. “I don’t feel we did something wrong.”

A U.S. Senate bill introduced this month aims to provide foreign entrepreneurs like the Catois family an easier path to permanent residency and citizenship. A bipartisan group of senators, including Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Mark Warner, D-Va., offered the legislation, dubbed the Startup Act 3.0.

It would create up to 75,000 visas for foreign entrepreneurs and offer a four-year process for them to become citizens if they make at least $100,000 in their first year and employ at least five full-time employees after four years.

This is the third time the idea has been proposed but the first time it hasn’t been attached to sweeping immigration reform that has made it more difficult to pass.

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Sidnee Peck, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, said the Startup Act would boost Arizona’s economy in Arizona because of the state’s many immigrants.

“Competition is a good thing,” she said. “The saying goes, ‘The high tide raises all ships.’ We will all be better because of new innovations and new opportunities that are created.”

Foreign entrepreneurs are crucial to this country’s recovery from the recession, Peck said.

“New businesses age zero to 5 create all the net new jobs in the U.S.,” she said. “New companies are the way we grow. Without new companies, we’re stagnant.”

According to a 2012 report by the nonprofit Fiscal Policy Institute, 18 percent of business owners in Phoenix are foreign-born.

James Garcia, a spokesman for the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents Hispanic-owned businesses in the state, said the bill is a positive step but isn’t enough.

“This looks like a sincere effort to get the conversation going again with immigration reform, and we’re in support of that,” he said. “We would hope that both the Senate and the House and the White House try to get together on broad and far-reaching reforms that address all aspects of immigration as soon as possible.”

Garcia said his organization wants to see reform for immigrants of all occupations because the economy needs more than just business owners.

“We in this country need many unskilled workers,” he said. “We think there should be an acknowledgment of the fact that our economy in Arizona and the U.S. need more immigrant workers at every level of the economy.”

Lisa Magaña, an ASU associate professor of transborder studies, said the legislation doesn’t address the real problem with immigration policy.

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“It does nothing to fix illegal immigration,” she said. “We don’t have a problem with high-skilled coming in; it’s just the low-skilled who can’t get in legally.”

Magaña said the Startup Act emphasizes the difference between the struggles of educated and poorer immigrants.

“There have always been visas for businesses,” she said. “For the ones that can create more jobs, it’s easier. It’s always been much easier for the wealthier and well-educated to enter the U.S.”

Even if it becomes law, the Senate bill is likely too late to help the Catois family. Caroline started an online petition, which now has thousands of signatures, to draw attention to her family’s plight.

Catois said she is frustrated by Congress’ focus on illegal immigration instead of fixing the inefficiencies that legal families face.

“I feel right now, illegals have more rights than we have,” she said. “We are here, we are legal, we pay taxes so keep us. Keep the people who contribute to the system.”

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Emily Mahoney/Cronkite News

Carolina and Arnold Catois run Cafe Paris in Scottsdale but face being deported because of their visa status. A bill before Congress would provide visas and a path to citizenship for entrepreneurs who meet certain conditions, including employing a set number of people.