What The Tech Immigration Fight Is Really About

From an immigrant’s perspective.

Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

Silicon Valley power players had a huge role in shaping the immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate today. One tech-centric provision was the inclusion of so-called Start Up Visas for entrepreneurs with financial backing for their own businesses. Currently you can qualify for a green card only if you are sponsored by a paying employer. That means immigrating entrepreneurs and graduates with student visas can’t start their own businesses or even work for a startup on equity-only basis.

Take one entrepreneur, who used to help run his family’s quarter-billion-dollar finance business in India. He moved to the Bay Area in 1999 to get an MBA and start a tech company. He’s still waiting for a green card.

He told BuzzFeed his story on the condition of anonymity.

I originally came to the U.S. in 1999 on a student visa. The goal was to start my own company, build a legacy, and make a name for myself as soon as I was done with my MBA program.

The professor of entrepreneurship said I was one of the most promising students. I was winning competitions. He liked my idea for an online marketplace for sponsorships. You have people at corporations who want to back an idea that’s in line with their tactical marketing needs, and then organizations that are organizing events and looking for sponsors. How do you create visibility for each other and fulfill each other’s needs in the market place? It brought a lot of heat. The professor said, “You have to pursue this. You have to make this happen.”

But I couldn’t move forward because of the immigration issue. Soon into the program, the Foreign Student Council found out what I was doing. Having your own business without a green card is impossible. You essentially have to work for four years with a company to wait for a green card to come through.

I spoke with a lawyer and said, “What if I sponsor my visa through my own company?” He said you can’t if you own more than 10% of the company; there is no straight way of doing it.

Can you imagine being from a business background and then being told you can’t do business here? I had the capital to show; I have $100 million in India that I have raised. I didn’t come here from India to just work a job. That’s not really worthwhile.

I come from three generations of entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur has a very different genome: It is majorly different in outlook, character, and the way of doing things. Our DNA is all about building our own companies. We are whacked-out people in the startup game. The majority of us are here in Silicon Valley to change how the world works in our own way; working for someone else means working toward someone else’s vision.

Fast-forward: I went into investment banking. That was nowhere on the plate, but because I had been in the finance industry for so long [in India], it came easily to me. Then 9/11 happened. When the market collapsed, even those [banking] jobs were gone, and I had no one to sponsor me. In 2002 I went back home and rejoined the family business.

It was very disappointing for my family and me. I was totally crushed. I had fought with my entire family to come to the U.S. When I left [India] they were angry with me — but they said, this guy is young, going forward, doing things, and taking a risk.

In India there is zero tolerance for making mistakes. It isn’t OK to fail. If you put your hand into something, you have to make sure you get a return on your investment.

But Silicon Valley encourages experiments. It is OK to fail and learn mistakes and build on that. You hear great stories of people doing really well [in Silicon Valley], that things are open, and there is a culture of startups and entrepreneurs. And when you get here, it’s the perfect environment — but the moment immigration issues come up, the whole thing collapses on you.

If the country would allow people to start a new venture, there would be overnight change. Take away the immigration issue, and everyone that is working on an idea and is serious about it would be drawn to the U.S. You go to tech conferences, and there are foreign companies who haven’t raised money and can’t come over to the U.S. because of immigration and are trying to figure out how to be here. There is power across the world to generate new ideas, which would shift in the U.S.’ favor. Silicon Valley is already pretty powerful, but it would become the major power. Anyone can blindly say that; it is not a probability, it would happen.

In 2005 I decided to give living the dream another shot. I came [back] to the U.S. on a tourist visa and started talking to investors to restart the whole thing. But the green card was the major problem.

In 2006 I met with founders who were looking to start a new venture they had already been working on. They wanted me to take the idea to a fully operational stage. I took a job with them because I needed a green card to move forward.

My wife got a job with another company, which was a relief. In 2007 they started accepting employees with I-140s. We got lucky. The company already had a [visa] certification.

I have been waiting over six years. In the meantime, the market has changed. When I was young, in my thirties, I had better energy levels to work on a startup.

Time was passing by. In 2010, I said, enough is enough. I wont let my pristine years pass me by. I need to move forward with my startup. Screw the green card.

My wife had a EAD card, so we talked about it, and I put in my resignation and moved on. I’m glad I took the risk — I don’t want to be in the U.S. and work for someone else. I would rather beg to my dad to take me back on.

It has taken five to six years to get to even two to three weeks from the priority dates. The backlog for Indian visas is so high that you aren’t seeing any movement at all. Everyone is just waiting their turn.

You come across lot of entrepreneurs in similar situations. It’s not just that you can’t be your own startup, but you can’t join another if you have the financial capacity. I’m actively interviewing people to join my startup on an equity-only basis, and we can’t sponsor H1Bs. Even if they have sufficient funds and are willing to work without a salary, they don’t have the choice. They can’t jump the gun and come here, because they need to be employed. The only reason is because immigration won’t let them.

If our green card doesn’t come through, if something goes wrong with immigration, then what will I do? Do I have to move back to India? The startup won’t work there. We are launching with a Bay Area market.

It isn’t right to keep me away from that. You should support me. We are creating jobs for your county, helping the U.S. become more powerful as a country. It is crushing to not be able to work on your own company.

[Politicians] focus on people who illegally cross the border or have been in the country illegally. No one talks about those who are extremely well qualified, who got their masters in this country and have plans to add to the economy. Where do we fit into the debate? We paid to go to university to get our degrees; we are well-qualified people who want to start our own ventures. We should be allowed to do that.

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