US Immigration Fails Entrepreneurs Again

I’m so sick of how – as a country – our authorities treat people as though they are criminals. A month ago a successful Boston entrepreneur who has been incredibly engaged in the Boston startup community was thrown in jail for three days after a CPB agent decided she didn’t have a valid visa (she did have a valid visa, and she was from that extremely dangerous country of Canada.)

A few days ago, Laurie Voss, a co-founder of a company we are investors in was detained for three hours at the board because he stated his job was “software developer” instead of “web developer”. He had recently gotten his green card and went on to describe the harrowing experience he endured, along with the unceremonious release a few hours later.

While I’m happy that USCIS continues to try to education its workforce as well as entrepreneurs via programs like A New Front Door for Immigrant Entrepreneurs, the words at the top and the actions in the field are completely disconnected. I hear a story about it almost daily and I’m now having someone I’m directly connected to or involved with impacted at least a month. It seems to be getting worse, not better, which just sucks.

If you care about this issue, I once again refer you to to Vivek Wadhwa’s excellent book called The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent. Tom Friedman has also written a number of really clear OpEds on this topic in the past year or so. With all the talk about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the need for job creators in the US, our immigration policies are directly at odds with the concepts our politicians are telling us are critical for our economy to grow.

The conversation in Washington DC has shifted back to “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” I’ve now had several people I know in the White House tell me this is the new immigration priority as in “let’s fix the whole problem with comprehensive immigration reform” over the next four years. In the last week, I’ve heard from several that “there’s no way we are going to be able to get anything done on immigration reform anytime soon because of all the fiscal crisis issues and partisanship in Congress.”

Awesome. We continue to be functioning in a delusional context. The Democrats think they have magic political power because of the results of the election and the Republicans are focused more than ever on not letting the Democrats “win.” And President George W. Bush, who I disagree with on so many things, recently asserted that immigration reform  is needed to boost the economy and specifically said, “”Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they help invigorate our soul.”

While the entire situation is ridiculous, I’m continually upset by the way entrepreneurs like Laurie Voss are treated by CBP and USCIS. I’ve asked for apologies before and I’ll ask for them again. CBP / USCIS, or someone in the White House – please call Laurie and apologize to him. Then figure out the real root cause of the behavioral problem. And start respecting immigrants, not treating every one like a bad guy until you confirm they aren’t.

  • It’s the same situation here in Canada as well (I’m originally from the US). They have actually stopped allowing applications for residency for almost a year now if you are either an “entrepreneur” or “self-employed.” The US border agents are pretty hit or miss… after spending 6 months traveling the world this past year, the only place we had any issues at all was actually when we were coming back to the US. The woman was *extremely* rude and on a power trip. I had to apologize to my Canadian girlfriend and her mother since the CBP woman was the worst example of an American I had ever come across. They treat immigrants like criminals and it’s just shameful. No where else in the world are people treated so poorly when visiting another country than in the US.

  • Gordon Hargraves

    In a world that competes on value-add, it is beyond me why we (the US) actively discourage the best and the brightest from coming to this country.

    • And beyond me as well. Just completely and totally baffled.

      • DaveJ

        Slave morality: the best and the brightest are a threat. The politicians work for the voters, and that’s their value system. Why is this difficult to understand?

        • I suppose that statement isn’t difficult to understand.

          I just never understand why the best and the brightest are considered a threat.

          • Nagesh

            Because many immigrants have no voting power. They have to become a US citizen to obtain the right to vote, so they don’t play as a concentrated viable voting or money generating machine for local or congressional candidates. Different story at presidential candidate level.

          • DaveJ

            Among other reasons, it’s probably because you are one, and spend most of your time with others who are.

    • Possibly there is some latent insecurity.

      I know from working in bigger enterprises the real lame ducks are the ones who hire weak underlings. In smaller companies you hire the best and rise to the top on the shoulders of giants. So perhaps you have to believe in the giants that are happy to lift you – To do this you must first believe in yourself.

      I also heard it said that all boats lift on a rising tide. Generally true, but not of holed super-tankers. So the question is – if the US is prepared to stop defensively protecting its big industries to competition (eg auto) and believes they may become stronger because of it.

      It must also allow its children (the smaller companies) to fall and hurt themselves – It’s not nice to watch – but it’s the way to watch them grow.

      It is often argued that companies outside the US suffer because failure is not tolerated. On the other hard it is argued that in tough commercial times winners survive and losers go to the wall.

      So which is it – is painful eradication of losers good or bad – to me it’s clear …

      I am all for the idea that fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.
      So am I alone in seeing failure myopia in the US ? Learning through small fails is great, but propping people up that are mortally wounded is just a waste of resource.

      Better to let them die, pick up their swords and shields and fight on. I think that’s what disruptive ankle biters do !

      Mosquitos on elephants sure get enough to drink, and they don’t care if the elephant gets thirsty.

  • Mahesh Guruswamy

    Politicians will always pander to the citizens. As long as the majority of the american citizens think that an H1B is a means of stealing jobs from them (and believe it or not our POTUS used this in his 2008 campaign. I sent their campaign a note, explaining about H1bs, Green cards, consulting companies, startups etc, but I dont think anyone was reading it), there will never be true reform. Once the general public understand what it means to come to the states on a F1 visa, get a degree, get a job, get a H1b visa , spend around 10 years getting your green card and then pursue your dreams, and that an immigrant has zero advantages over a citizen when it comes to obtaining a job (h/she is in fact severely crippled in what they can do in the states, when it comes to moving jobs, starting a company etc), we might be able to move the ball forward on this.

  • Sad to hear about Laurie’s situation but unfortunately as the US National seeks to embolden itself through its xenophobic lens the best and brightest from other countries will eventually decide to stay home. The only reason why people from Canada seek employment in the US at present is because there are more opportunities and more Angel Groups, Founders and VCs who are willing to take chances… as soon as some of these “foreign” talent decide to move back home, these funds and intellectual horsepower will continue to disappear from the US fabric forever.

  • Debra Chanda

    1962 US and 1965 Canada is when Documentation for working in each if our respective countries became law – I worked and lived in US for 11 years – fortunately, outside of 9/11 which stalled paperwork on green card processes – mostly it was no hassle – I am all for North American all access working – if Americans want the social benefits of Canada – come on up and if Canadians want to be part of the capitalistic drive in US – then move on down.

  • As a French Immigrant entrepreneur, I can’t disagree the immigration process is a bureaucratic nightmare! It makes me sad that a country build on immigration (unless you’re a native american) and entrepreneurship let such a crazy kafkaesque system taking place. Personally It goes beyond your startup, it influence your love life for at best 2-4 years (time to process a green card) it even influence how you run your business (I have to be a CTO even though it does not make any sens, it wouldn’t be for my amazing co-founders I would not be here (I might be in Singapore I guess 🙂

  • No name for obvious reasons

    Yes! I am an entrepreneur from Australia, and have been in the US to do graduate research, having completed by Masters and now halfway through my PhD, all funded by US sources. I also graduated from a Silicon Valley incubator. Yet when they hand me my PhD, I’ll have to leave the country. Have to. I literally come out in a cold sweat every single time I come through immigration. They could turn me around for no reason at all. I have to watch what I say in public spaces because anything could be an indicator that a. I intend to stay beyond my visa (a non-immigrant can not make any indications of wanting to live here permanently) or b. I have a problem with America. I have to have a signature from the university every six months, and staying “in status” is more difficult that tying a cherry stem in a knot with my tongue – which I can also do. Thanks for the experience and the education, but really I’m seeing that America does not want me here. Repeatedly being called an alien and being told constantly that I am on limited time kind of has that effect.

    • Debra Chanda

      Thank you for sharing. What is your PhD in? Try to think out of the “words” like alien – I remember thinking that too when in that status. Have a good immigration lawyer – they will take the emotion out of it and provide rationale. If your documents are correct then there is no problem at entry.

  • The US may be the ultimate closed protocol.

    Poorly documented, volatile and behaves inconsistently depending on your position speed and direction. Attempts to reverse engineer, deconstruct, or even engage may be painful.

    The system knows no formal boundary and will interact with deadly force, and remotely in response to perceived threats regardless of their origin intent or authority.

    PS have worked there occasionally – but I prefer the slow sure lane, its better for hauling important monster loads up hills.

  • The two examples you mention are not failure of the INS policies (one has a visa, the other one a green card). They are failure of the immigration agents at the border. Those simply reflect the mentality of a majority of the voters. Educating those guys, or even educating politicians is taking the problem backward. We have to educate our fellow citizens.

    • I think I explicitly said they are CBP issues. But – they are also USCIS issues as part of the broader arc of education of CBP as well as the disconnect between CBP and USCIS in coordinating around these issues. And – I’ve got a long list of other USCIS issues.

  • I have been at passport control in TO & didn’t say exactly the right thing when asked a question. One and a half hours + $350 later for a special visa, and I was on my way.

    The agents that work in these roles seem to relish the opportunity to fuck over anyone they can. At each point that I expected common sense to kick in (“No, I am not trying to sneak in to your country to destroy your economy by doing software work”. “yes, I was ‘invited'”. (WTF does that even mean?)), the conversation simply became more bizarre as the agent dug in his heals and insisted that I would not be allowed to enter the country without a special visa.

    • StevenHB


      • Toronto – YYZ. I have lots of friends in TO + I picked up the TO label (sometimes GTA for Greater Toronto Area) from them.

        • StevenHB

          Thanks for the clarification.

          I traveled to Canada a few times for work. I was prepped each time, repeatedly, by my hosts, who’d invited me to a meeting, to be sure to say “I’m coming to Canada to attend a meeting” at the border.

    • Yes I will say this…I go to Canada quite a bit. They are pretty tough on American businesspeople. They always grill me about if I’m doing work there…I’m going for the day? I’ve also been grilled about if I had narcotics: she asked me three times if I was sure, I almost said am I in Austin Powers? Same for if I had porn on my computer?? Almost said I am going to download it at the hotel. You are right.

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  • The border crossing agents need major retraining. I have so many stories of people getting delayed at the border due to silly term in their paperwork. Also, most of them are completely stubborn once their mind is made up about something. For an example, my brother was going to Florida to start as an associate professor and because the first page of his documents mentioned ‘lecture’ instead of ‘teach’ as the job description, the border guard wouldn’t let him in. The lawyer had to re-draft the paper work and fax it to get him across!!

  • Check out the new Global Entrepreneur Program (GEP) that New York’s EDC is putting together. It’s still in pilot stage and while it does not really serve foreign entrepreneurs who are out of the country but I think it’ll help those of us who are already here -as students or on temporary visas etc- get H1B visas. Happy to share more

  • What shocks me is that we educate non-US citizens in our University STEM programs. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I just can’t understand how we can say you can earn a degree and then you need to go home to compete against us. My brother is a robotics professor and it used to be most students wanted to stay, now most want to return home, he says that is the norm, that’s a point not a line but if we lose a single engineer that is going to go back to her country and compete or work for an outsourcing company, not pay U.S. taxes, social security, medicare, etc that is one too many. Do we think she is not going to get a job back home? Do we not think that job will compete? We lose not only the brain and the spirit but the taxes as well.

    Yes there are many issues around immigration, I understand how they could be complex to fix, I don’t like it but I suppose its a partisan thing, but this is a completely separate issue. How can you play politics with this? There are few things in this world that are black and white, that pass a litmus test, but this is a simple matter, you have a technical degree from an accredited U.S. college/university or you don’t.

    I would invite every single person in congress to go to whichever College or University is in your district and visit the engineering departments. How you could come away from that and not agree that we should provide a green card to every graduate is insane, just absolutely insane.

    Can’t we just carve this one thing out? We say STEM is so important and we do this?

  • James Mitchell

    So we put Canadians in jail for being here without a visa? Unbelievable.

  • At least criminals get a chance to appeal, immigrants don’t even get that…could you also ask someone in white house how are they ensuring that the immigration agents are following the correct protocols and not abusing their power?

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