A pledge to unite international students and tech

I count myself blessed to have been contributing my weekly Dear Sophie articles to Extra Crunch since the beginning of 2020. The inspiration for the column struck last December after I returned to the Bay Area from speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt. I was doing my hair, and I remember feeling the spark of the idea begin to take shape in my mind. Before I fully understood the shape of the thought, I knew it was already resonating in my heart.

The last three-and-a-half years have been hell for immigrants and hell for immigration lawyers. Probably a lot of caring government immigration adjudicators have felt it, too. But it’s like an abusive relationship: The people who keep getting knocked around by the administration are completely powerless and literally have no voice, as they are not entitled to the right to vote. Many immigrants live in fear that the cost of opening their mouths would be retaliation and deportation. So we need a new paradigm.

The latest insult to injury affecting high-skilled immigration, in the wake of consular closures and the the H-1B ban, is last week’s announcement that raises the possibility of the potential deportation of hundreds of thousands of international students currently enrolled in U.S. higher ed for taking online-only classes during COVID-19.

Even with litigation by Harvard, MIT and Johns Hopkins, and some programs offering qualifying courses for students to maintain enrollment, the clock is ticking. My firm is inundated by requests from students both local and even abroad, struggling to find a way to continue to simply “be” in the U.S. legally.

Many others are desperate to find employment to remain in status in the U.S. on OPT and STEM OPT work permits. Working visas such as the H-1B, a common option for many recent graduates, are also disintegrating. So many are scared that they could be forced to leave, as they have been now, for years.

Why is it hard to leave? Well, think about it. Immigrants are people. Your friends, your neighbors. Like you. Some international grad students who have been here for almost a decade completing cutting-edge research put down roots and might be pregnant now or have U.S. citizen children, not to mention, potentially have been working for decades for lucrative job opportunities ahead.

And then, beyond the obvious COVID-19 health concerns about departing the U.S. on international flights in the midst of a pandemic, some home countries aren’t even accepting citizens immediately and returning students may face long waits for flights with potentially exorbitant fees. Many students, families and university administrators around the country and around the world are scared.

So many immigrants are trying their best, but under this administration it feels like a Sisyphean task — never enough — as the rock keeps rolling back down the hill.

All last week I found myself fielding The Zoom Calls of Panic: the brilliant UX designer who tells me he’s in purgatory; the accomplished Ph.D. who laments that “the U.S. is the only country that won’t take me after I get my U.S. Ph.D.”; the amazing business woman crying that she needs an extraordinary ability visa not for herself but so that she doesn’t disappoint all the families of all the people for whom she has created jobs in the United States.

Yet also, last week, there were so many glimmers of hope, opportunities for my clients to make decisions, and chances I got to take to show somebody that they can have choices, routes, strategies and hope.

One of the most inspiring things was all of the employers who have been coming out of the woodwork to support international students and grads to sponsor them for visas. Five years ago, that was simply a matter of routine business necessity in a system that was predictable, secure, navigable and easily accomplished in volume. Now, meeting a U.S. employer excited to sponsor international students as an act of solidarity gives me chills as an act of courageous heroism.

One of the events that almost moved me to tears last week was when I stayed up late one night and dragged myself to put on makeup after I finally got my elementary school kids to bed. Bleary, I provided a rambling 40-minute YouTube live stream interpreting the F-1 visa ban for international students after they had requested this from me on LinkedIn saying “In Sophie We Trust” (no pressure!). During the live stream, I received a comment from David Valverde, founder of Pranos.ai. He said that he had been an international student and that he would pledge to consider international students for job openings at his rapidly scaling startup.

We stayed in touch throughout the week on LinkedIn, and every time a stranded international student with a tech background who needed a job contacted me, I sent them David’s way. We finally connected on Friday, and somehow egged each other on to commit to volunteering in a self-imposed 2.5-day “hackathon for social good.”

This weekend’s result? We proudly announce the Community for Global Innovation (CFGI), a movement centralizing how companies and individuals around the world can stand in solidarity with international students and the belief that everybody deserves a chance to succeed.

CFGI is a constellation of top startups, VCs, professionals, nonprofits, international students and grads. We pledge to support international students, create awareness and effect change.

Through the platform, companies take the CFGI Pledge to support international students: “If you’re international, no problem. In our team, everybody has a chance.”

We also teamed up with Welcoming America, a leading U.S. nonprofit, accepting donations to make the U.S. more inclusive toward immigrants and all residents.

We’re actively seeking the support of volunteers, corporate donors and community members such as international startup founders who know it’s time to share their stories.

Growing up as the daughter of an immigration attorney and an immigrant, I know that innovation can truly come from anywhere. Diversity is critical for innovation.

The technology we rely on every day was often invented and created by people who had the courage to leave their homeland and start a new life. We all benefit as they continually create more jobs in the world as we move to a new global interconnected economy.

Life is not a zero-sum game: When we can come together to support one person to succeed, it benefits us all.

Everybody deserves a chance.

As a result of CFGI, I’m blown away by what David is doing, and I’m so excited to see how others contribute. David’s company Pranos.ai is a revolutionary mass media platform that converts any window into a transparent digital HD display. David told me:

“Especially in an early-stage technology company, every new hire has an incredible effect on the company’s destiny. Hiring highly skilled top-talent at the beginning is critical to how Pranos.ai will create many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs globally through the growth of the gig economy.”

Pranos.ai was the first company to take the CFGI Pledge. They are open to considering any candidate based on merit, regardless of immigration status. David is proud to recruit a diverse team and stand in solidarity with international students.


Image Credits: pranos.ai

And why do I care about all of this so much?

I know what it’s like to be on the outside. Even though I practiced as an immigration attorney right out of law school, I gave up my career for many years to take care of my two small children.

I experienced postpartum depression and things snowballed as my dad, who was my dear mentor and friend, passed away unexpectedly and then my marriage came to an end. I wondered how I could survive in Silicon Valley as a single mom without a professional network.

Imposter syndrome shook me to my core. I longed to be an entrepreneur but I found reasons that it seemed impossible, like that I didn’t know the slightest bit about coding.

So, I decided to serve others. I began my immigration law firm out of my kitchen and met clients at a Peet’s on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View that has since turned into apartments.

I offered pro bono immigration services to people facing deportation who had experienced persecution based on their sexuality and individuals who had experienced domestic violence. I thought, “Well, at least I can support others.”

Little did I know that my clients were actually the ones supporting me: to believe in myself and create a new life. I’m inspired by the amazing courage of immigrants and the grit and tenacity of everybody who has the courage to follow their dreams.

I’m delighted by the access to information and spread of knowledge that we’ve all been able to pull off so far with “Dear Sophie.”

And now CFGI is here, where companies can take the pledge so they can be attractive to the world’s best and brightest who will know that hiring decisions are based on merit.

I’m also thrilled to see what will come next.

I stand here in deep appreciation of everybody who comes together in love and support of one’s neighbors. Because we all know, this is actually a very small, lovely blue dot in the universe, and we are all neighbors. The lines on the map that divide us that we call “walls” don’t actually separate the human spirit, or love, or ideas, or even germs, as we’ve all so keenly learned.

With so many global challenges and opportunities, I understand that our immigration struggles are simply a microcosm of so many things, and we can’t and won’t go back to the way things were.

We here who are privileged enough to live in Silicon Valley know how fortunate we are. This is where the future is being created, where the veil is thin between thoughts and things. Here, ideas rapidly come into creation and reality.

Here, we see each other on eye-level. We seek out challenge as opportunity. And we know that one focused person is more powerful than a million who are not, so innovation can come from anywhere, and one person can change the world.

So maybe here, on this leading-edge outpost, between the San Andreas fault and the crashing waves of the Pacific, we have an opportunity to take a stand:

We believe that everybody should have a chance to do well. Let’s start by standing in solidarity with international students and graduates through CFGI. And since what benefits one of us benefits us all, perhaps with the growing momentum, we can support others, such as children in immigration jail, asylum seekers, Dreamers and everybody else who deserves a chance.

Because, but for the grace of God, there could have been born I.

I am thrilled to announce CFGI. Remember, life is not a zero-sum game. If we can come together in love to support just one person, that ripples out and benefits us all.

I hope you’ll join me.

Learn how to make immigration work for you at Early Stage where immigration expert Sophie Alcorn will troubleshoot the many snags that can affect early-stage startups that are trying to bring talent into the country. Buy your tickets now. 

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