How U.S. Immigration Policy Hurts Skilled Foreign Workers

By Sriram Gollapalli

I have had the opportunity to meet and work with some very bright foreign nationals in the personal (my wife!), academic, and professional facets of my life.  Over the past few years, I have read more about, as well as heard first-hand accounts of, the difficult, ambiguous, immigration policies in the U.S.  Last week, NBC news aired a fascinating piece with Tom Brokaw (see clip below) about "how the nation is losing its best and brightest immigrants because of visa restrictions."  As a first-generation Indian-American entrepreneur with many relatives spread between the U.S. and India, stories like these hit very close to home.

One example is when Martin Kleppmann, a fellow web entrepreneur and co-founder of Rapportive, came to the U.S. from Germany.  During his immigration verification process, the U.S. consulate asked him "to prove that we [Rapportive] had enough warehouse space to store our [their] software inventory." Really? Warehouse space to store software for a web-based service?

The immigration debate has been going on for as long as I can remember. While there are countless news pieces on the Mexican-U.S. border, or the recent Arizona debate, one rarely hears about the challenges with the legal, highly skilled (H1B) immigrants who are trying to make it here. The process to enter the U.S. as a skilled worker can be extremely frustrating, confusing, and inconsistent.

A current example of this hits very close to home: My wife's cousin, who has completed graduate-level studies and has been living and working (paying taxes) in the United States for the past nine years, went back to India in early February for a short visit (her last visit was two years prior).  One of the reasons she had delayed this trip was because she had to get her passport "stamped" with the H1B visa in order to re-enter the US once she traveled abroad.  This process tends to be fairly confusing and depending on which government organization you refer to, one can get a different answer as to when/how to accomplish this.

Knowing that this can take time, she immediately visited the local U.S. consulate upon landing in India to start the process.  After this visit, she was told that her case was "successful" and that they would mail her the passport "soon."  She naturally assumed that everything was fine and continued to enjoy her vacation.  One week (into the two-week vacation), she received an email from the consulate stating that they had to "verify the details given by her" with no estimated duration for resolution.  She was supposed to return to the U.S. (and to her job) that Sunday -- but, without a visa, and more importantly, a passport, this was impossible.

It has now been three weeks since she was supposed to return, and there is still no update.

This is just one example of many that people experience daily when trying to re-enter the U.S.  While most stamping cases happen without a hitch, I've had cousins stuck for weeks or friends stuck for a few months while waiting for their documents to be verified.

I won't enter the debate of the merits of the actual verification process.  However, I would ask that we should strive for more transparency and consistency.  This experience can be extremely disruptive to one's professional (employers don't have to wait for their return) and personal (families can be split) life, and more steps should be taken to acknowledge that and share more information in a timely, clear manner -- especially, when this country is struggling to keep and attract bright talent and innovation.

For now, we'll just hope that she hears soon so that she can be reunited with her husband (who had to return two weeks ago at the risk of losing his job).


Sriram Gollapalli is a founder and the Chief Operating Officer of iLab Solutions, based in Cambridge, MA.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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