Staying in America, No Thanks to Congress

The Class Dojo team, from left, Sam Chaudhary, Kalen Gallagher, Monica Harvancik, and Liam Don work in their office, located in a one-bedroom Palo Alto, Calif., apartment, March 2, 2012. (National Journal)

PALO ALTO, Calif."“Congress still hasn't done right by Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don. But they've managed to stay in the United States anyway.

After being featured in a National Journal cover story from March about how Washington can't solve simple problems with bipartisan-backed solutions"“starting with how to allow more high-skilled immigrants into the country"“the British-born tech entrepreneurs have completed a Hail Mary pass to win U.S. visas.

"I didn't allow myself to really feel the ecstasy until I got the passport in my hand and opened it and saw the visa," Chaudhary said. "It was very grand, with stars and stripes. It was like a movie moment."

Chaudhary and Don founded an educational-technology company, Class Dojo, which raised $2 million from private investors and won an Innovation in Education contest sponsored by NBC and Citigroup. More than 1 million students and teachers have used the software, which helps teachers manage classroom behavior.

But there was a hitch: Chaudhary and Don are not American citizens. The Brits' temporary visas were slated to expire last month, and the U.S. government's annual ration of H-1B work visas was tapped out.

Despite broad consensus among Democrats and Republicans in Congress about the need to create jobs and foster innovation, the U.S. does not offer visas aimed at foreign entrepreneurs. In Washington, efforts to expand visas for highly skilled workers are frequently crushed in the grinding gears of immigration reform, corroded with fears about border security, job losses for American citizens, and the burdens on government and schools. The latest effort "“ a measure dubbed Startup 2.0 that was unveiled Tuesday "“ is aimed at keeping foreign entrepreneurs who graduate from U.S. universities in the country, but it too faces long odds.

The Class Dojo founders' last hope was the so-called O-1 visa, typically granted to celebrities and Nobel Prize winners. The stringent criteria for this visa awarded for "extraordinary ability" includes nationally recognized awards, membership in a professional association, authorship of scholarly articles, proof of the ability to command a high salary, and media attention.

Chaudhary and Don hired Chris Wright, one of a small circle of lawyers thriving in a state that beckons technology entrepreneurs with visa problems. Wright, a South African transplant to Los Angeles, has processed hundreds of O-1 applications in the last 15 years, including one for British journalist Piers Morgan when he replaced Larry King on CNN last year, and another for Canadian model Jayde Nicole, Playboy's Playmate of the Year in 2008.

"In the immigrant community, my name has been passed around quite a bit," said Wright. "There's a massive bottleneck."

With Wright's assistance, Chaudhary and Don submitted a two-inch thick stack of papers, including NJ's story on their plight, and then returned to their homes in London to await their fate and try to keep Class Dojo afloat from abroad. They paid a lawyer and the U.S. government thousands of extra dollars to accelerate the turnaround time, fearing the delay would kill the company.

After finding out that their application was approved, they took a train to Brussels for the requisite embassy interview because the wait was shorter there than in London. The interviewer had the power to single-handedly reject them, on the spot.

Instead, Chaudhary recalled, the interviewer ended an affable conversation by saying, "Come pick up your visa on Monday. Good luck! Hope you hit the jackpot!"

The visas last for three years and can be renewed multiple times. Chaudhary and Don are also eligible to apply for green cards.

Advocates of high-skilled immigration reform celebrated their victory but continued to decry the gridlock that left the men with such limited options.

"This story has a happy ending"“both for Sam and for the people who will work for his company"“but sadly too many of the world's most talented entrepreneurs continue to be shut out by current immigration policies," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who cochairs the Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan group of mayors and business leaders that advocates immigration reform, in a statement to National Journal. "If Washington is serious about job creation, it needs to start seeing immigration as an economic issue and stop turning away the very people we need to create the new businesses and jobs of tomorrow that our country's success depends on."

Their lots in life have improved all the way around. Chaudhary had been sleeping on a couch, Liam on a mattress on the floor, in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment for months while running Class Dojo out of the cramped living area. Now they are sleeping in (hand-me-down) beds in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house. They plan to double the size of their six-member staff by the end of the summer.

"We wanted to have a party to celebrate our visas, but we've been keeping our heads down on work," Chaudhary said. "I'm sure we'll get around to it."