America’s current immigration policy is designed to provide international students with the best higher education in the world. Upon graduation, however, their visas expire, and they are faced with the possibility of deportation or enduring the long and uncertain process of applying for an H-1B visa. The irony: many of these students are ready and eager to put their education to use in the U.S. and contribute to its economy in industries from technology to finance to engineering. Yet despite broad bipartisan support to mend this broken system, very little has been done, resulting in nearly 100,000 rejected H-1B applications. OpedSpace, in partnership with FWD.us, is launching Keep The Future Here — a weekly series that brings to light stories of individuals affected by this broken immigration system. It’s time for change. If you or someone you know would like to share a story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and tweet @opedspace using #freedom2innovate.
Karen Ong (Boston, MA/Germany)
That’s it. In less than a month, my co-founder and I will leave the U.S. and move our company’s operations from Boston to Berlin. Our H-1B visas are expiring and there is no option for entrepreneurs like us to continue staying here.
My name is Karen Ong and I am the founder of LanguageInternational.com, a reservation platform for language courses. My co-founder Michael and I received our master’s degrees from Harvard. Our dream was to stay in the U.S. and build our company here, but the broken visa system has left us with no choice but to leave the U.S., let go of our employees, and move our company to Germany.
$65 in visa application fees, $0 in legal fees, $0 in travel cost, and two days of waiting time — that’s how much it cost to obtain my Blue Card, a European-wide work permit that can be renewed indefinitely. Contrast that with my H-1B that’s valid for no more than six years, yet still took over three months to process. My company spent nearly $10,000 in legal and filing fees, plus over $3,000 in travel cost for me to fly home and obtain my H-1B visa stamps. Clearly, the country’s visa system for highly skilled immigrants is broken.
It might already be too late for my co-founder and me. However we have dozens of friends who are entrepreneurs currently residing in the U.S. If this broken system isn’t fixed, they will likely have to leave the U.S. and move their companies overseas, as well. It’s time for change.
Ashwin Murthy (Mountainview, CA/India)
One August morning many years ago, I found myself starry-eyed and jet lagged at the Los Angeles International Airport. In search of the American Dream, I had come halfway around the planet to pursue graduate studies in computer science at the University of Southern California.
My earliest memories of the United States are of newfound friends asking me about the movie Slumdog Millionaire and arousing laughter when I referred to an eraser as a “rubber.” In about a year, America was no longer a foreign place but the country I call home, the nation I want to contribute to.
Little did I know then that the green pastures are not so green, at least not without a green card. I would soon be on a work visa (H-1B), joining hands with over a million engineers, scientists and doctors living as second-class citizens, thanks to our broken immigration system.
I soon graduated with flying colors and applied for jobs across the country. After a rigorous interview process, I was offered a spot at a search engine company with an acceptance rate of less than 0.5 percent. Excited about working with the best engineers I accepted the offer, and over the years have built a career as a software developer.
On the surface, I’ve created a good life and lived the American dream. But in reality, thanks to the immigration limbo and the endless wait for green cards, I live a different kind of life — the life of an indentured servant. I cannot change employers or quit my job (to start a startup or go back to school). And if I ever get fired, guess what? Leaving family, friends and everything else behind, I would be tossed out of the country, like an empty beer bottle tossed into the trash can, that very day. Spouses of skilled immigrants face an even tougher life — despite being well qualified, they cannot work or even have a credit card in their names. Denied every opportunity to be productive citizens and virtually confined within the four walls of their house, they lose their self esteem and end up in a state of depression.
Like any other patriotic American, I take great pride in serving my country. A few months after graduating from grad school, I had a chat with a local Army recruiter about volunteering in the Reserves. The recruiter was very excited about my skills — foreign languages and engineering prowess. When asked about my green card, I said I was on a work-visa and was waiting “in line” for a green card.
I remember the change in his face, from excitement to disappointment. It turned out that as an ALIEN (Yes, that is exactly what I am called as though I am from Mars), I cannot serve my country. Even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for immigration reform and its imperativeness to our economic health. Yet, immigration reform has been stalled. Why do our legislators think that maintaining status quo — millions contributing to an underground economy, while we train the best and brightest to work for our competitors — is good policy? It is time for our politicians to put aside petty politics and come together to act on immigration reform. Till then, I will serve my country by advocating for immigration reform.
Tewfik Cassis (Boston, MA/Egypt)
In 2008, my Junior year at MIT, I joined Romulus Capital, a new venture capital fund, as its founding associate. It was my first foray into tech. It ended as soon as I graduated, because Romulus, a small fund at the time, could not afford the financial burden of sponsoring me for an H-1B or the risk of me leaving suddenly if my visa was not accepted in the lottery. Over the course of my two years with Romulus we raised a fund and helped several tech companies that are now collectively valued at more than $500 million.
Three years later Alice Brooks, the founder and CEO of Roominate, a tech-toy company that inspires young girls to enter STEM fields, reached out to me to join their team of two as head of Business Development. Again, they were unable to take the burden and risk of having me go through an uncertain and costly H-1B process.
Today, as I graduate from Harvard Business School and as a member of the founding team at OpedSpace, I am about to embark on my third attempt to work in the U.S. and, if anything, the process has become more difficult and unlikely since I first started back in 2008. Without a change to this broken immigration system, I face the risk of deportation. Every year thousands of people like myself face this risk and end up making career choices that are detrimental to both themselves and to the U.S. economy.
To learn more about where your U.S. Representative stands on immigration reform, enter your zip code below.