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As Congress Debates Immigration Reform, One Entrepreneur Waits

Vishal Sankhla, the founder of a VC-backed start-up in Silicon Valley, explains what it feels like to have his visa status hang in the balance of the current immigration debate.
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Over the next several weeks, the Senate is set to debate immigration reform legislation.

Some following the debate will be trying to divine the future ambitions of various Republicans or the general direction of the recently troubled party, others will argue the economic and demographic impact of reform. But in his office in San Mateo, California, Vishal Sankhla will watch closely for other reasons.

His professional and personal life both hang in the balance.

A U.S.-trained engineer originally from India, Sankhla was employed on a H1b visa when he got the idea for Viralheat, the social media start-up he has since co-founded.

"In late 2008, I got together with [his co-founder] Raj and we started toying around with ideas. That’s when we came up with the idea. I was itching to start my own company and my only option was to either stick with Cisco till I get my Green card, which could take several years, or take a risk and start Viralheat. I decided to take the risk," he explained to Inc. in an email.

In some ways that’s a gamble that paid off. The company has 17 employees and is planning to add more, and has also managed to raise $4.25 million in Series A funding. By just about every standard that’s a promising beginning for a start-up and a plus for our job-hungry economy. But Sankla’s success hasn’t been enough to win him a stable immigration status. After spending a year applying for a Green card, he was denied. Now he says he is applying through another category, but the uncertainty has an outsized impact on his business.

"I was on an H1b visa that made it impossible for me to join my own company that I had founded. I was lucky to have a co-founder who was a US citizen to even be able to explore this opportunity and get the company to where we are today," Sankhla says. The current immigration system affects his start-up in other ways too.

"We also have employees who are on H1b visas, so we have to spend a lot of time, resources and energy on their immigration paperwork. Being a small company we do not have full-time HR resources who focus on this, so it ends up taking my precious time away in making sure everything is going smoothly," he says.

All of which sounds like a nightmare for any growing business, but Sankhla notes that his immigration struggles have taken a personal toll as well. "It became very tedious to travel outside the country. Every time I travelled, I had to get a stamping done in India. The stamping process takes up a lot of time in terms of collecting all the immigration paperwork, employment paperwork, employment verification, pay-stubs. A lot of people end up getting stuck in their countries. The process never ends, you are always worried. Your immigration status becomes your number one source of stress," he reports.  

And immigration challenges have affected other members of his family as well: "My wife is currently with Netflix on an H1b visa and her Green card is stuck Perm. audit so basically we are still quite far from getting a Green card done. Also, I worry about my mom. She has a visitor's visa that allows her to stay for up to six months in the U.S. after which she has to travel back to India. It becomes harder and harder for us to stay together, especially as she grows older."

Unsurprisingly, Sankhla has joined efforts to get immigration reform through Congress and is watching the debate closely. He’s optimistic, he says, but nervous.

"I worry because the debate is still largely focused on whether to create a path to citizenship for low-skilled, undocumented workers or illegal immigrants. The issues of legal immigrants go largely unnoticed and our issues are bundled tightly, so any delays around the former provision, also ends up delaying issues for people like me."

What’s he hoping for? A higher number of H1b visas, so that employers can access talent from abroad and "an easy way for people to apply and get their Green cards in a reasonable amount of time and a clear and timely pathway to US citizenship."

As a business owner, you can keep Sankla and his family in mind as the immigration debate unfolds in the coming weeks for humanitarian reasons, but he makes a far more hard-nosed business case for fellow entrepreneurs to get involved in the conversation.  

"We need to recognize that and double down on entrepreneurs, because other nations are figuring this out. There is a billboard up on the freeway here inviting people having immigration issues to Canada. In the end, if US cannot attract, engage and retain top talent, it will be left behind."

Are you following the progress of immigration reform? What are you hoping to see come out of the process?  

 

Last updated: Jun 18, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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