How Legal Immigration Failed Silicon Valley

Twelve years after filing for U.S. residency, I finally took the oath of citizenship in a quaint suburban theater, having spent seven of those prime entrepreneurship years mired in the Green Card queue.

This wait damages the entrepreneurship spirit and, worse, impacts career prospects, thereby crimping the economy. And I’m not an outlier; comparable delays play out over and over amongst prospective permanent residents in Silicon Valley. Our immigration system hinders entrepreneurship, innovation and productivity.

Success in the tech industry, where whole new job categories are created overnight, requires deep familiarity with trends, products and technologies. Learning opportunities abound — if you’re willing to transition to new roles, educate yourself, work on different products or switch companies altogether.

Building your own startup, or even joining one, can be the best career move; it offers remarkable potential for growth by wearing multiple hats in an expanding organization. The labor market benefits from this flexibility not just with an improved and adaptable workforce, but also one that creates jobs.

The immigration process impedes all these possibilities.

Any permanent residency application involves three steps: labor certification (LC), immigration petition (I-140) and adjustment of status (AoS). The first step, LC, is skill and location specific. This disrupts labor mobility by disallowing transition to different roles (in my case, from engineering to product management) or relocation to more promising company locations. If you want to change companies at this stage, tough luck; you must restart the process, losing all the years spent in the queue, like I did.

The next step, I-140, puts you in immigration limbo, waiting on AoS for several years. Because I-140 filing is considered immigration intent, it forbids reverting to say a student visa, in case you wanted to attend school full time by abandoning the residency application. The only choice? Juggle school with work and perhaps spend years commuting long distances to attend classes from Seattle to Berkeley, like I did every week!

To add to these woes, unclear rules might reset your application again if you switch companies in the final stages. So, like me, you must reject incredible opportunities, like Facebook, that might come calling.

And that’s not even the worst part. If you get laid off, you must leave the country. Immediately. So despite having spent years waiting, you can be on the next flight home, disrupting entire families.

Let’s give a voice to innovation, entrepreneurship and the American dream.

The American dream is built on entrepreneurship. But risk taking can only thrive in a stable residency environment. The permanent residency process is contingent on employment at a firm — you cannot simply begin the application and leave to start a company. How can you possibly feel stable with your status dependent on the whims of a for-profit organization? A startup visa, a potential alternative, has too many restrictions to have broad appeal.

Of course, you can always patiently wait for the residency approval. However, even though age might not be a barrier to entrepreneurship, it certainly doesn’t help that family obligations and opportunity costs pile up with the years. And like every other skill, entrepreneurship takes years and several attempts to hone.

Joining a startup is a great substitute to starting your own company. But startups are frugal. And residency applications require astronomical legal and filing fees. Interviews or job applications inquire about sponsoring status to filter out candidates for good reason. Try telling your VC you spent $25,000 of their $1 million funding on immigration fees — on one candidate! Instagram almost didn’t happen because of their founders’ struggles with H-1B.

No single solution can remedy this fundamentally broken system. There are, however, some ways to mitigate the misery:

  • Eliminate employment-based country limits: The current quota system enforces that China (population: 1.4 billion) and Liechtenstein (population: 33,000) have the same approval limit, which exacerbates the delay. Why not let the labor market determine the need? Heck, even past amnesties did not mandate such restrictive rules.
  • Retain highly skilled talent: International students from top U.S. schools are heading back; for better opportunities or from immigration frustration, like the founder of $5 billion Snapdeal. This starves our economy of vital resources. The often-suggested “staple a Green Card to STEM degree” is the most viable approach to counter the drain. To avoid misuse, however, it should be restricted to graduate STEM degrees from top colleges.
  • Process management: By handing control of the residency application to employees themselves, they can tap into the best labor opportunities, unfettered by their companies.

We’ve reached a turning point where our country is already not the most sought after innovation center. And there’s no relief in sight with Congress mired in tackling illegal immigration while ignoring legal immigration.

Since obtaining residency, I have already founded two companies. Others are waiting patiently in that queue. Let’s give a voice to innovation, entrepreneurship and the American dream.