Coming to America - An Immigrant's Perspective
April 29, 2017
There is a lot of hubbub around immigration into the United States at the moment. With a slew of immigration orders and laws, fear, doubt and uncertainty have been struck into the hearts of all immigrants. Being an immigrant, let me tell you a story of how this has affected me personally and my fellow immigrants around me.
I am Indian. I come from a land of over a billion people, so needless to say there are plenty of us, mildly putting. Everyone yearns to be unique and achieve success. That’s what brought me to the United States. These days I often wonder what exactly was the core reason that brought me here. There are several reasons to pick from and I’ll whittle it down to the core reason shortly.
My mom visited the USA for the first time in 1994 when I was a little boy. My first memories of her return were a red colored fire truck she brought back for me and it was one of my favorite toys growing up.
My aunt is the only close family I have here in the States and growing up, whenever she would come visit us, it would always be a great adventure to go pick her up from the International airport in Mumbai, India. That sense of excitement to pick someone up from the US, seemed to kindle an initial fascination with this country.
In the 90’s there was a time when western television and film content made its way over to India. Shows like Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Ally McBeal were all hugely popular. For me, it was watching the NBA. Following Tim Duncan and David Robinson ( the human Twin Towers! ) of the San Antonio Spurs kept me hooked for years at end.
There were a whole bunch of reasons — many of which, now that I look back, were seemingly formative experiences in shaping who I am now. The core reason, however, was to come for Silicon Valley and the technology utopia that was the United States.
When I was in 4th grade, I still have the distinct memory of being asked for the first time what I wanted to be. My reply was “I want to be a Computer Engineer”. I had no idea what that entailed and I have no real clue why I said that, but there it was. You could put on your stereotype hat and say something like “I mean you are Indian, what else would you have said?”. Jokes aside, while that moment was foundational, it was only the beginning of a long journey of me coming up to speed with the idea of Silicon Valley and earning the chops to be there.
Fast forward to today. I do not work nor have I worked in Silicon Valley. Yet. You can never rule out the possibility. I do, however, work in technology, so you can say the goal was partially achieved.
However, the current climate certainly raises some doubts about the sheer state of being here. I’d like to highlight the top 3 concerns, most Indian immigrants, in my opinion, have about the United States at the moment —
Everyone likes a sense of belonging; for immigrants, this is most notably quantified in the form of citizenship of a country. After leaving behind a homeland, let us consider the arduous process of becoming a U. S. citizen if you are Indian. Let’s say you came here for your Master’s Degree in Computer Science (this can really be any major but I decided to draw on my personal experience). That’s about 2 years on a visa known as F-1. To continue staying in the United States, you have to have a job; with an employer who is willing to sponsor you for your stay. Now let’s say, you get a job, you get on something called the H1-B visa, or the high-skilled immigrant work visa, for a period of 3 years. If your employer likes you, you can renew the H1-B for another period of 3 years- for a total of 6 years. There are no more extensions permitted after this. If you want to continue staying here, your employer must apply for your Green Card. For Indian citizens, the process of getting the Permanent Residency ( most commonly known as Green Card ) takes anywhere between 7–12 years, based on average wait times, although some estimates put it at a laughable 83 years. 5 more years and then you are a US citizen! Woohoo! So let us put that all in perspective — 8 years before you even apply for permanent residency, anywhere between 15–20 ( in total ) years to get your green card and 20–25 years ( again, in total ) to get the citizenship. That is bonkers! That is like half of your adult life waiting to be the citizen of a country.
Another less known fact of not having a Green Card (gentle reminder; the one that takes 15–20 years from start to finish), is that you can’t NOT have a job and just decide to chill/take a gap year or something. You have to stay employed by an “E-verified” employer. You cannot start your own company and you cannot have any side income besides your own employer paying you. You can sneak your way around some of the legalese, but it’s all a big gray area. As a result of this long wait time, I, among others, have started looking at other countries such as Canada and Australia, which have very compelling immigration policies to help promote entrepreneurship.
Another by-product of having to be on the H1-B is the restriction on foreign travel. Let me try explaining this conundrum. When you are given an H1 visa, you are just given the document ( for all intents and purposes ). Yes, you can legally work on the basis of that document, but you aren’t ACTUALLY in possession of the “visa”. To do that, you need to go back to your home country after having scheduled an appointment with the American Consulate. Let’s call this process “stamping” of the visa. So, essentially, to get your visa “stamped” you need to travel nearly 8000 miles after having been certified to receive the visa document in the first place. In addition to this, there is a chance ( albeit pretty slim, depending on the reputation of the company you are working for ) that you might be rejected for the visa when you go back for the “stamping”. If all of this sounds complicated and kind of ridiculous, it’s because it actually is. Coming back to the original statement on restriction on foreign travel; if you have your H1B visa but you haven’t gotten it stamped from your home country, you are not allowed to leave the USA to go on some foreign adventure. In order to do that, you have to first get your visa stamped for your H1-B duration and after that occurs, you are permitted to travel abroad. Indian citizens get an H1-B visa for a period of 3 years at a time which means that if you want to travel abroad you have to at least stamp your visa once during that period. It is even worse for Chinese nationals, who need to do it every year since they get the H1-B visa for 1 year at a time. There is a multitude of other concerns such as an uptick (maybe perceived) in xenophobia, taxation without representation, leaving behind families thousands of miles away yada yada but the ones I wished to highlight were the immigration issues.
For me, personally, Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley for reasons that are too numerous to elaborate in this post. There are several other countries, like China, Australia and Canada, pouring in research and money to create an environment akin to the Valley. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t but the fact that there are competitors in a global market is always a good thing for everyone involved, except a monopoly.
The immigrants I talk about in this post, choose to come to this country willingly, knowing the travails that lay in front of us. The purpose of this piece is to have a meaningful dialogue about what it means to attract and retain high-skilled/talented immigrants in a country that prides itself for being the bedrock of modern immigration. If the United States does not take strong and constructive steps in the right direction, it could very well lose its edge on the world stage.