Friendliest message to visitors – get rid of immigration lines

These are interesting times. While there are a couple, if not more, wars going on about protection of freedom(s), on America’s home turf, an organization known as the TSA has been given the legislative mandate to aggressively monitor every single person trying to get on an airplane.

People are being violated in public by these employees, threatened, humiliated, etc. etc. On last count, the TSA was successful in apprehending some drug abusers. But, that’s besides the point of this article.

Every country needs safeguards to make sure that air safety is not compromised by rogue elements. The easiest way to implement them is at the physical level right at the port of entry/departure. This is what the TSA seems to be doing. The reason this is inefficient is that in this day and age, there are more reasons to rely on intelligence and psychological analysis than the brute force method of X-Raying individuals or frisking them at the airports.

The problem isn’t just this frisking. When you take into account that pre-boarding security is often complemented by post-arrival immigration checks, the process is visitor unfriendly at best.

Why cannot intelligence be combined at all levels to make the process seamless? Surely, any country that would bar an individual from entry at the immigration post would like to do the same at the point where the individual tries to even get into a flight into the country. This is what is lacking in the current security regime in the US. It is like different organizations are running their own respective shows.

Compare this to traveling within European countries. There is freedom of movement and hence a lot of intelligence is (presumably) utilized to make the process hassle free for genuine travelers while at the same time keeping checks on shady individuals. When you travel from one country to another, you’re often not even forced to get into an immigration line, because there is no immigration! You just show your travel documentation briefly to the airline representative manning the gate at board time. This is convenience, and this truly signals ‘Welcome to our country’.

Why I support the Border Security Bill

Much has been said about the newly enacted Border Security Bill in the US (HR 6080 – PDF). At its core, the purpose of the bill (now law) is to provide monies for funding existing and upcoming objectives of the DHS (including USCIS), DOJ, and the Judicial system pertaining to the southwestern border of the United States.

It sounds really simple in intention, except that it really isn’t. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat NY) states that it is beneficial to the country because it ‘Would Hike Fees On Personnel Companies That Exploit U.S. Visa Laws’. Wait, what?

Before I state my reasons for supporting this bill, I would like the discuss the exploitation Schumer talks about. The H1-B/L1 visa categories are particularly controversial, in part because they are both what are known as ‘dual intent’ visas. This means that any H1-B/L1 visa holder is allowed under US immigration law to seek a path towards permanent residency in the country. Why this complicates the entire debate – they are both mandated to ‘temporarily employ foreign workers’ in specialty occupations. According to Schumer, ‘It will also avoid adding to the deficit by raising fees on a handful of foreign corporations that abuse U.S. visa programs to import workers from India.’ So, it is clear – the bill’s primary target is Indian IT companies, namely Infosys, Wipro, TCS, and Mahindra Satyam. All these companies are also responsible for the majority of American offshored work as well. So, where is the exploitation? It is clear that the companies bring foreign workers to the US temporarily for a specific work project and for a specific client. Of course, owing to the aforementioned dual intent provision, these temporary workers are free to obtain permanent residency in the US, too, but few do. I bet this mostly due to the contractual nature of such an engagement.

The exploitation Schumer refers to could be the fact that these Indian companies are what are called ‘H1-B dependent’ companies. Simply stated, these are companies with 15% or more employees on an H1-B. These companies pay extra for this ‘privilege’ come time to apply for an H1-B. They also have to provide an attestation that they made ‘good faith’ efforts to hire Americans and that no American jobs would be lost as a result. But wait, there’s a rider. If the company hires workers with a master’s degree or pays them above a threshold salary, they aren’t required to attest anything, not that it’s genuinely easy to find qualified software engineers in the US.

So, please don’t give these companies a bad name. They are not exploiting any visa laws. At best, they are exploiting America’s global push for open markets at open labor rates.

Now, onto why I support this controversial bill, irrespective of the absurdity surrounding penalizing legal immigrants to keep illegal immigration in check. These are my points:

1. This is a good reminder that there are great opportunities elsewhere. USA is the world’s biggest importer, but there are tremendous opportunities in other parts of the world. Infosys, please start bidding on Indian projects as well.

2. This bill is no doubt the harbinger of a greater push towards immigration reform during this presidential term. Schumer has long been a proponent of meaningful immigration leading to a speedy path towards permanent residency. This bill lays the groundwork for such reform. It’s time to tell the world that America would rather import talent permanently than send it back.

3. This is the biggest reason – the bill inherently kills the ‘desi consultant’ business inside the US. These are the real culprits. Basically, these are small time body shops that work at the third or even fourth tier of the consulting business, are almost always owned by first generation Indian permanent residents with another primary source of income, have no business plan, are really H1-B dependent, and have no code of ethics. There are various reasons why someone would join such a company. For most, it’s the easiest path to getting an H1-B (and subsequently legal residence) after completing education in the US. With this new law, such companies would have to shell out extra for every new H1-B petition. This eats into the already meager margins at which these shady companies do business. But, the topic of small consulting companies deserves another blog post of its own.

4. Speaking as someone who earned two graduate degrees from a top American university, I wholeheartedly support any measure that provides confidence to American students that engineering degrees are good and that there is going to a be a job available for them when they graduate. This leads to the much greater issue in my opinion, that of regulating US Inc. such that while global talent and liberal immigration is welcome, steps ought to be taken to ensure a level playing field for people born in the country. It’s not their fault that everything is cheaper abroad. Almost every developed country has such protective measures in place. America should, too. Too bad it would need political might to rein in capitalism.

America is lucky to have a very active immigration debate in this day and age when every other country is on its toes to recruit talent globally. People want to move to America for a better life, better future, and for freedom to take risks that they couldn’t back home. I can only hope that something good comes out of bills like HR 6080. In the interim, I am confident that these steps would lay a strong groundwork towards making comprehensive immigration reform a more welcome agenda in the minds of Americans and would-be immigrants alike.

Cheers!

Why the Founders Visa could suck

If you have been following blogs of people associated with the technology and entrepreneurship industry (yes, entrepreneurship is also an industry) with any level of intent, you MUST have heard of the Founders Visa movement. Predictably, the ‘grassroots’ effort has been gaining a lot of momentum thanks to Twitter.

The premise is that if you’re a budding entrepreneur with viable investment money on hand, you should be able to freely come to the US as a nonimmigrant to start your business. Hitherto, the only ways to come to the US without having been born here have been through a buffet of non-immigrant visas or being able to secure work in the country. The latter has always been classified as a dual-intent visa that allows you to also apply for permanent residency through employment based green cards. Notice the importance of intent. If you’re a student and you give the guy at the consulate the impression that you’re going to find a job after graduating, there are grounds to reject your non-immigrant visa.

This becomes an important issue to consider when you realize that MOST of the successful companies in the US were started by people who first came to the US on these student or other non-immigrant visas. Statistically, most successful startups are also conceptualized and governed by people in their late 20s or early 30s. Also, quite a few, if not all, entrepreneurs work for a while IN THE USA before they think, ‘Hmmm, I should start a business doing this’.

MISTAKE 1: Emphasis on intent

Now, once you’re in the USA, you complete your education from one of the top schools in the world. Even though you hardly have any American students in your Algorithms class, you are optimistic, and you get that degree. But wait, you get one more just because you love being in school. And here you are, one of the brightest people around, have a potential career, have a strong head on your shoulders, are optimistic, etc. What next? You apply for a job! Yey, right? No. Because…you’re now a potential immigrant, are suddenly a bad guy because you’re trying to reduce wages, and worst of all, you aren’t American. You are in line for a work permit.

MISTAKE 2: Treating international graduates like first time immigrants

But, before you get a work permit, you have to be worthy enough for a company to spend more than $3k on lawyer and application fees for you. On top of that, thanks to the xenophobia and immigration backlash, they have to contend with the fact that the other employees might link your getting hired to their kin losing jobs. I know it’s ass backwards, but bear with me. In the quest to get a work permit, who wins? Half of that $3k figure is actually lawyer costs. In a country where the insurance company makes more than the doctor this doesn’t surprise me one bit. Compare this to Canada, where just like healthcare, you don’t need a middleman to file your paperwork.

MISTAKE 3: Making it hard to actually get a visa

Now you have a visa, a job, and are making some money. You’re being a good non-citizen – paying more taxes than citizens (you can never avail a lot of benefits reserved for citizens), contributing to the society, making kind donations for the needy, obeying the civic laws, etc. Then, you realize that you’re actually good at what you do, and there’s a lot of sense in starting a business. Well, welcome to America! You can start a business but you cannot work for it! We like passive investment, but you cannot do anything more than putting in money. Which means, you’d have to have a full time job, worry about keeping it, all the while as you struggle to start your company and make it profitable. You have a choice – move to Canada or Chile while you’re still young or live the American H1B dream.

MISTAKE 4: Wanting the best but doing nothing to keep them here

So you eschew the idea of starting a new enterprise until you are a legal permanent residence and don’t have to worry about being employed all the time. Well, there’s an app…err I mean paperwork for that. And, if you are a citizen of China or India, you are looking at almost 6-7 years of patiently waiting before getting anything back out of that paperwork and large amounts of attorney fees. Depending on when you file for your permanent residency, you could all but forget about marrying that girl you knew back home, because she could marry you but not come back with you. Splendid.

MISTAKE 5: Making timely legal immigration some sort of a pipe dream

Once you get that ever so elusive green card, you’re fed up, tired, old, and the torture you faced has made you an immigrant hater yourself. Then, there’s the added pressure of hearing about all those successful peers that went home when there was time and made big bucks. So, what do you do with that green card? Well, you use it to help your retired parents spend the rest of their life with you here in America where you nearly got everything you wanted when you wanted.

There was a time when people actually went through all this effort, because frankly, there was no better place to work than in America. Things have changed A LOT since then. There’s a mass exodus of young non-immigrants from the US to other countries. These people came here, got educated, loved working hard, met great people, but they don’t want to toil away for a piece of paper that still wouldn’t release them from the xenophobia that they so wanted to overcome.

So, where does the Founders Visa fit in? Some say it should be an entirely new visa that looks at you as a capable entrepreneur, gives you a few years to prove it, and requires some amount of backing by established investors. If you fail, you leave the country.

Are you fricking serious? I am sure that’s so enticing.

Some argue that it should be an extension of the EB5 permanent residency category. The category that lets you come to the US, no holds barred, for a mere amount of $1,000,000 ($500,000 through a rural investment). That’s really it. Invest that amount of money and you’re guaranteed a happy retirement in the United States of America! All it takes is 2 months of paperwork and lawyer fees. Splendid again.

You know why the Founders Visa proposal sucks?

IT IS STILL A VISA AT THE END OF THE DAY

You are not inviting any talented people to the country by making such an entry conditional on their being successful. Are you serious? Do you ever go out during the day? Do you have a social life? How do you explain the pressure on these entrepreneurs who have to compete with undocumented immigrants (who, by the way have it way way easier)?

How many entrepreneurs would come to the US just to take a risk when Canada would simply look at their education and give them a permanent resident status? Do you think they would leave their families behind?

More importantly – How do you define success?

The Founders Visa suffers from all the mistakes mentioned above. Congratulations, you didn’t provide any solution.

IT IS STILL A VISA

Addendum: I realized later that my post might come across as starting off with the mistakes in the new proposal. That is not true. The main reason I list the problems with the current policies is that I believe they should be addressed before we start baking a second layer of our cake. Also, I believe that if the intent of the visa is to attract people who have never been to the US before, the facts that it is still a temporary permit and that it banks heavily on the beneficiary being successful are also the flaws of the proposal.

If the intent is to keep the bright people from leaving, then the mistakes listed need to be addressed. There’s just too much hard work involved in being successful, and the headache of worrying about a stable US presence just makes the proposal not worth it.