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The Immigrant Entrepreneur’s Survival Guide: 5 Hacks for Navigating U.S. Immigration Insanity

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It’s crazy-time right now for immigrant founders working on starting a business in the United States. Lives are upside down. Projects are in chaos. Husbands, wives, and kids are separated from each other, and can’t get home. Folks are stuck in places they don’t want to be. Orderly business planning has become a bad joke.

SO HOW BAD IS IT?

It’s pretty bad. Some dispatches from the front lines (details changed, but stories true):

Kamal in Somalia is a product designer. He’s created a drone prototype that triples the on-the-ground delivery rate for medical supplies to war zones. Kamal just got accepted into an exclusive, super-competitive U.S. accelerator program for founders with world-changing ideas.

When he flew to San Francisco to join his cohort, he was detained, handcuffed, strip-searched, and interrogated for six hours. The immigration inspectors searched his phone and laptop, denied him entry, stamped his visa “cancelled,” and put him on the next plane back to Mogadishu.

Soraya from Tehran is a graduate student in an Ivy League engineering program. Her research in spinal cord injury repair just won a major international award. But Soraya can’t fly to London to attend the ceremony and accept the honor, because she’s not sure whether she’ll be able to get back into the United States.

Hussein from Syria owns a successful business in Canada manufacturing whole-home solar lighting systems. Since 2010, he’s been building and positioning his company for relocation to the United States. In January 2017, Hussein was thrilled to finalize his plans to open a factory in Kansas City that will create 50 high-paying U.S. jobs.

But then the first executive order came down, and Hussein can’t get a routine visa to enter the United States. His new factory stands empty and unfinished. His American work crews are idle. His U.S. investors are sympathetic, but they’re getting impatient.

IS THE AMERICAN DREAM NOW A NIGHTMARE?

We figured that immigration would get harder after the election, right? But we didn’t know it would get THIS bad, this fast. Entrepreneurs like Kamal, Soraya, and Hussein, from the 7 “target” countries, are having a really hard time.

Those from neighboring countries like Ethiopia and Afghanistan, and even India and Pakistan, are being harassed and intimidated at U.S. ports of entry.

And founders from all over the world are resigned to long delays, suspicious questioning, and invasive searches when they land in the United States.

This is so NOT what the American dream is about! Don’t we welcome innovators with open arms? Isn’t America the place where anyone with a great idea and a good work ethic can build an empire, through sheer hustle and perseverance?

Don’t we represent the universal dream of escaping repression, starting over, living free, pursuing happiness, and building a successful life with your own resourcefulness and hard work – a dream shared by people of all races, religions, ethnicities, and national origins?

YES. We are. We do. We’re still America, land of the free and home of the brave. The great majority of Americans strongly believe in the ideals of our country and will stand and fight for them.

But meanwhile, our government’s been taken over by a deranged minority of haters.

They’re fomenting, right here at home, a filthy, toxic brew of the very evils we came to America to get away from. Tyranny. Oppression. Discrimination. Cruelty. Exclusion. Suppression of free speech. Religious persecution.

We drafted our Constitution specifically to prevent these things. It’s a robust, strong, sturdy Constitution. It’s a good antidote to poison. It will neutralize these evils, eventually. But it’s going to take time.

And international founders don’t have the luxury of time. It would be understandable if they just wrote us off. The American dream? It’s a nightmare now. Forget it. We’re taking our innovations, jobs, and capital away. Anywhere but the United States.

Yet the great majority of Americans would say – entrepreneurs, please don’t give up on us! Our government’s changed, but WE haven’t. We need you here now more than ever. We need your great ideas, your initiative, your contributions, and your positive energy. We need your voice in our community.

Most of all, we want to welcome you home.

Lucky for us, some immigrant entrepreneurs will have the generosity of spirit to say YES to us. They’ll make a bet that we, the people, will have our values prevail in the long run.

Like Kamal, Soraya, and Hussein, those courageous folks have a lot of unpleasant immigration traps and snares ahead of them. Yet the qualities that make them entrepreneurs – their curiosity, resourcefulness, agility, and skill at thinking outside the box – also give them the resilience to overcome our temporary immigration insanity and achieve their long-term goals.

So how can we help them? What practical advice can we offer? What hacks and workarounds will they need?

THE GUERRILLA GUIDE: 5 ESSENTIAL HACKS FOR FOUNDERS NAVIGATING U.S. IMMIGRATION MADNESS

From an immigration professional, here are 5 practical, down-to-earth strategies for international founders trying to build a business in the United States right now.

1. If You’re Here, Stay Here.

Especially if you’re from a high-risk country, plan your life and your business so that once you get here, you can stay in the United States as long as possible. There are lots of legal strategies for lengthening your course of study, changing your visa status, or extending your stay. Take advantage of all of them.

Why do this? Because every interaction with U.S. immigration – especially at the border – is a point of visibility, and a potential attack vector. Every interface increases the risk of a bad consequence. Reducing visibility and minimizing the attack surface are high priorities right now. Stay in low-friction mode.

If you’re outside the United States, get here if you can. If you can’t, stay where you are, and play the long game. Do everything possible to continue building your business from there. Lots of startup activities, like R&D, prototyping, and investor contact, can be done remotely. For now, minimize your interface with U.S. immigration – a high-risk activity that can harm your long-term prospects. Treat it like other business risks, and bide your time.

2. Make a Plan B, and Be Ready to Pivot.

Think through what could happen if some demented new change in U.S. immigration policy forces you to leave the United States, makes it impossible to enter, or both. How will it impact your business? Do you have a place to go, a work-from-anywhere strategy, and a mobilization plan for your team?

Hopefully you won’t ever need your emergency plan, but it’s really important to have one. It’s reassuring to your market, your investors, and your people. Most important, it gives YOU peace of mind that you can handle the unexpected. These immigration surprises come up like tornadoes – they knock everyone off guard and leave them scrambling. A little forethought can keep you calm and focused on what matters.

3. Get Expert Guidance.

U.S. immigration law is already complicated and unpredictable, even without these new, insane, unlawful enforcement actions popping up everywhere. Your U.S. immigration attorney is your best friend right now. Choose an experienced attorney who specializes in startups, and invest in a professional consult about your specific situation.

Ask the attorney to help you plan your visa status strategically for the future. Get advice on all the visas you might qualify for, and how to sequence them, if one doesn’t work out. Ask about your worst-case scenarios, their consequences, and their remedies. Get scripts for international travel to optimize your U.S. entry process.

Chance definitely favors the prepared mind here, and a good attorney is the best preparation tool you’ve got.

4. Scrub the Data on Your Devices Before Entering the United States.

OK, sometimes you have to travel. Your papers are in order, you know what to say to the immigration inspector, and you’ve done everything you can to ease your U.S. entry process.

So what do you do when the inspector seizes your devices, demands your passwords, and threatens to deny you entry if you refuse?

Legally, you’re not required to disclose your passwords. This is NOT a lawful ground for denial of entry.

But when you’re standing there in customs, jet-lagged and scared, it’s really hard to say no. You don’t feel like playing chicken with authority figures. And if you do get denied entry, even though it’s unlawful, there’s not a lot of recourse.

So what happens if you say yes? Well … very bad things. U.S. Immigration uses a “data vacuum cleaner” to suck every byte of data off your device within seconds. They can then paw through all your email, social media, apps, photos, and documents at their leisure. Apple, Google, Facebook, and most apps have world-class encryption, but it won’t do you a bit of good if you’ve voluntarily surrendered your most private and personal information. And once the government has it, they have it forever.

This is a really scary scenario! Many attorneys and privacy experts now recommend leaving your devices at home when you travel. However, that’s not a realistic option for most people.

One workable alternative, is to put ALL your information in the cloud, then scrub your device clean. Delete all the browsers and apps. Optimally, you can reset it to factory settings. At that point you can hand it over, and even disclose your password, without compromising your personal information.

Edited to add: Some security experts oppose this recommendation, because it implies that you have something to hide. I’ll update this post with reputable suggestions as I find them. Do you have a method for safeguarding your personal information during international travel? Please share in the comments. Thanks!

5. Play the Long Game.

U.S. immigration insanity is just one piece of a much larger puzzle you’re solving as an entrepreneur. It creates huge uncertainty and inconvenience in the short term, but it’s a business risk that can be quantified and planned for to a certain extent.

Continue working toward your long-term business vision. Act with confidence that our immigration craziness is temporary and short-lived, but plan for the possibility that it’s not.

Make a long-range U.S. immigration plan, and go about executing it. If you’re working toward an entrepreneur’s O-1 “extraordinary ability” visa, keep building your evidence portfolio with media coverage, awards, written articles, and competition judging. If you’ve already got your O-1, begin immediate plans to use your “extraordinary ability” evidence for an EB-1A green card.

Finally, stay alert, stay agile, and be ready to adapt. As an entrepreneur, these skills are second nature to you. They’re going to come in handy as you navigate the “new normal.” Please, keep fighting the good fight! We need you here now, more than you know.

TELL YOUR STORY

How has U.S. immigration madness changed your plans to build a business in the United States? Have you been denied entry, been afraid to leave the U.S., had a visa petition denied, or otherwise been affected by immigration concerns? I’d love to hear your story. All communications are confidential. Please reply in the comments or drop me an email – mary@visabuilder.com. Thank you so much.

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