Categories: In Brown Type

Skilled visa holders insecure about life in the US

“You can build your life where you choose to. The question is, and always will be this: Where do you think you belong? Where’s home?”

Asked of the hero, this pivotal question acts like a hinge on the clapperboard of the film “For Here or To Go?”

The title of the movie is a clever play on words and questions whether America is the right place for all immigrants, as well as being the question posed at most fast food restaurants.

I watched a screening of the film on a warm Friday evening at San Francisco’s historic Gadar Memorial Hall on Wood Street. The venue seemed significant and representative of what I’d come to see.

The movie unfolds to a close-up of actor Ali Fazal, who plays the hero, software professional Vivek Pandit, sitting in front of his computer and pitching his algorithm to a health care startup. The two interviewers hovering at his back look entranced by the genius of the young man’s vision and are ready to sign the employment paperwork. Later, once Pandit’s visa status is revealed, the offer is withdrawn, and Pandit is left looking desperate and despondent as he stares into the distance.

“Many of the experiences that I’ve shown in the film I actually did go through,” says Rishi Bhilawadikar, the film’s writer and producer. Bhilawadikar came to the United States as a student at Indiana University to earn his masters in game design. He landed his first job at SAP Labs in Palo Alto, the same place he was hired as an intern to work on user experience and human computer interaction design.

Bhilawadikar’s employers agreed to process his paperwork. In 2007, they filed for his H-1B visa. From that day until now, Bhilawadikar has been playing a waiting game, at the mercy of a policy that seems to be an overarching solution to America’s immigration problem with little wiggle room for nuances.

“It’s the sense of impermanence that I experience everyday that I wanted to bring out in the movie,” Bhilawadikar says. “If the economy is bad, I could lose my job. And if I lose my job, I have 48 hours to find another job or leave America.”

Until recently, Bhilawadikar lived in a studio apartment in SoMa with “just a mattress on the floor and a few pots and pans and personal effects.”

To give a sense of his unanchored state, Bhilawadikar doesn’t have a television for entertainment or potted plants to dress up his living quarters or even a couch to slouch on. He reminds himself that he might have to leave at any time, and he lives his life in increments of 48 hours.

Sharon Rummery, Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, couldn’t corroborate the 48 hours issue, but said, “It is true that if he’s laid off, he doesn’t have a way to stay in the U.S., unless there’s a way for him to change his status to another nonimmigrant classification, or he finds work elsewhere.”

Bhilawadikar is one among thousands in The City who are going through this and, as the movie portrays, it’s a question of commitment. When an individual has no near-term residency resolution, life becomes severely inhibiting, despite the fact that he or she might be cracking that next big digitally connecting app.

Tech star Kunal Bahl had to return back to India with a degree from Wharton after he was unable to start his company on American soil due to his visa status. He went on to found Snapdeal, an e-commerce company that is now valued at $5 billion and employs more than 5,000 people.

According to a Kaufman foundation report, 43.9 percent of tech and engineering companies in the Silicon Valley were started between 2006 and 2012 by at least one immigrant. Immigrants are twice as likely as people born in America to start businesses and innovate. This also means immigrants are twice as likely to provide jobs to the local community. So restricting this particular category of immigration seems somewhat counterintuitive.

Some in the tech industry have recommended “startup visas” as an option to sort out the immigration gridlock. These were to be limited to immigrant entrepreneurs who manage to get funding. The startup visa act — or versions of it — was introduced to Congress in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and held bipartisan support. But it stalled in the Senate and wasn’t given enough priority.

“For Here or To Go?” has received support from several entrepreneurs, including Brazilian immigrant Mike Krieger, co-founder of Instagram. In a video on the film’s website, Krieger says, “The movie resonated with me on a personal [level] … and is very much the story of me and a lot of my friends.”

The movie ends with Vivek Pandit leaving the United States to go back to India, where he starts his company and becomes enormously successful. “It’s an existential dilemma,” Bhilawadikar explains. “Should I stay or should I go? I wanted to humanize the problem. I wanted the audience to be empathetic to this issue.”

While the philosophy behind immigration is to encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship, the current immigration limbo seems to hit the brakes on novelty, opportunity and invention. Our immigration policies should be geared toward retaining the best and brightest, and a deportation threat is not the way to do that.

Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

Jaya Padmanabhan

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