If you think immigration reform is all about working-class Hispanic immigrants whose political allegiance has provoked a partisan wrestling match, meet Abraham Sultan. His is a different face of immigration reform, representing a factor more important than politics, one that ought to drive forward the legislation unveiled this week.
He is an articulate 32-year-old software engineer, a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who has struggled, like so many other immigrants, to find a legal way to stay in this country. His two young daughters, born here, are American citizens. The worry confronting Sultan and his wife is that some wrinkle in America’s patchwork of immigration laws could force the family to leave the life they have come to love here.
Here’s why this should concern you: The United States needs Abe Sultan and tens of thousands like him. In an economy increasingly dependent for its competitive edge upon knowledge, as opposed to manufacturing might, we can’t afford policies that close our doors to the world’s most promising young minds.
Sultan was born in Venezuela and came to the U.S. in 1999, the year after Hugo Chavez took power. He was part of the tiny Venezuelan Jewish community of maybe 20,000, half of whom have left in the face of the Chavez’s animus. Eventually he was joined by his high school sweetheart, Angie. She is now his wife.
A student visa enabled him to complete his RPI degree with honors — he started on a full scholarship, then got work with local software companies to earn spending money — and he used a training visa to work for a year after he graduated.
Pay attention to the dates: Sultan was in America during the 9/11 attacks, which led to some pretty unattractive behavior by Americans toward people not born here. Talk about border security, always a popular political catch-phrase in the Southwest, took on a more ominous tone. For our nation’s safety, plenty of politicians said, we needed to tighten immigration.
A different message was being sounded byRPI president Shirley Ann Jackson, and she has kept up the warning. She talks about a looming “quiet crisis,” as scientists and engineers have begun retiring in record numbers with too few young people in the pipeline to replace them. Too many firms run by RPI alumni, she notes, can’t find qualified engineers and scientists.
Meanwhile, some top RPI graduates have been forced to leave the country when they couldn’t get visas. Here, for example, is what Jackson said last fall at Rice University:
“The international dimension of talent access is complex and becoming more challenging. For years, the U.S. has built its science, engineering and overall technological base with very talented scientists and engineers from other countries. We need them. However, getting ‘green cards,’ even for those who have received advanced degrees here, has become more difficult.”
For Abe Sultan, it became a nightmare. It now takes years to get permanent worker status — the so-called “green card” — so like a lot of highly skilled workers, Sultan has relied on a temporary H-1B work visa, renewable every three years. You can’t change jobs with an H-1B visa unless a new employer can demonstrate financial viability.
That was a problem when Sultan and two college friends found themselves ready to launch a new software company. They had worked through countless nights on the technology and had raised a first round of funding, but U.S. immigration law doesn’t care about entrepreneurial spirit. Last fall Sultan and his wife and daughters went to the U.S. Consulate in Ottawa to renew his visa and were blocked from returning home for weeks.
Through it all, Sultan persevered, which is a good thing for a lot of people. That little cloud computing company he had his friends started, Apprenda, based in Clifton Park, now has raised $16 million in venture capital and has brought 60 high-paying jobs to New York.
On Thursday night it was recognized as a “Top Workplace” in the Capital Region by a poll of its workers.
Sultan is hoping to get his green card soon, a path to joining his daughters (ages 5 and 3) as a U.S. citizen. But the situation frustrates him, both for himself and Apprenda, which needs to retruit top talent.
“I’ve seen a great drain of some of the best technological minds over the past decade. We train the best and then send them abroad,” he said.
The debate over immigration reform, we’re told, will consume Congress for months. The current bill would eventually increase the number of visas available for educated workers filling specialized jobs — people like Abe Sultan.
Because both political parties are desperate to court the 40 million immigrants living in the U.S., the legislation has bright prospects, we’re told. But first we will hear a lot about secure borders, alongside warnings that U.S. jobs could be taken by foreigners. The far greater concern should be for America’s future if we can’t keep the likes of Abe Sultan in this country.