After winning accolades from the Israeli parliament for academic achievement and gaining 10 years of experience in building mission-critical systems for the Israel Defense Forces, Amit Aharoni came to Stanford to complete an MBA. Then, like many of his Stanford peers, Aharoni caught the entrepreneurial bug. Last July, he founded a start-up, which is building a shopping engine for buying cruises. In September, Chile wooed him to come and live there for 6 months by offering him $40,000 under their Startup Chile program. When I met Aharoni in Santiago, Chile, last December, he said he loved Chile, but was eager to return to Silicon Valley because that, for him, is where the action is.
Top tier Silicon Valley and European investors invested $1.65 million in Aharoni's company.Business Insider ranked it one of one of the "The 20 Hot Silicon Valley Startups You Need To Watch.” But the American government denied Aharoni a visa. Last week, the government gave him 24 hours to leave the country, and told him that his presence in the U.S. had become unlawful. So he took the next flight to Toronto. This is despite the fact that his company, CruiseWise, employs 9 Americans and is likely to create additional jobs.
Why did the U.S. government throw Aharoni out? Because the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service decided that a CEO is not a specialty occupation which requires an advanced degree, so Aharoni wasn’t eligible for an H1B visa.
I hear similar stories nearly every week in Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs who are eager to create jobs that help us heal the economy are told to leave the country immediately. Hundreds of thousands of doctors, scientists, professors, engineers who entered the country legally are stuck in a line for permanent resident visas that now stretches as long as 70 years for Indian nationals.
I have written about how United States’ Chief Technology Officer, Aneesh Chopra, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged to Silicon Valley executives that they were aware of these issues and were trying to enact tweaks to immigration policy that don’t require congressional approval but could make a difference. And then, on Aug. 2, Mayorkas and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced an initiative to “promote start-up enterprises and spur job creation.” But based on Aharoni's story and numerous others like it, the situation doesn’t seem to have changed.
During a phone conversation Monday, Chopra said that USCIS is going to enhance its effort to keep job-creating entrepreneurs in the U.S. by bringing Silicon Valley executives into the process. It is creating an Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program, similar to an existing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) program. The FDA program brings innovation experts into federal agencies to collaborate on improving its processes.
It remains to be seen whether this new effort will bear fruit. The battles are with bureaucrats in the immigration department like those adjudicating Aharoni's case who seem to have no sense for what makes Silicon Valley tick or the urgency of healing our economy. At my hearing in Congress last week, I got the sense that our policy makers did understand the issues, but were caught in a political quagmire which is preventing any meaningful legislation from moving forward. I hope that, between the efforts of Chopra and Mayorkas and our political leaders, some of these efforts succeed. I know that Chile is very eager to get Aharoni and USCIS’s rejects like him to move there.
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