My immigration story

Photo by Kalwa

I'm a big supporter of the Founder's Visa idea, but to anyone who hasn't been through the US immigration process it may be unclear why it's so important. I loved the way Manu Kumar talked about his experiences, so to contribute to the debate I'm going to give a brief run-down of my 7 year journey through the bureaucracy. A lot of friends and colleagues have been through the process too, so I know my story isn't particularly remarkable, but it may shed some light on why so many talented people give up on moving to the US. It's actually pretty long and boring, but that's kind of the point!

When I was 18, I maxed out my credit cards and took a three-month vacation in Juneau, Alaska, teaching archery at a boy scout camp in return for lodging. I fell in love with the US, there was a freedom here I'd never even imagined at home.

Back in the UK I completed a BS in Computer Science at Manchester University, which I'd chosen because of their awesome history in computers, with teachers from Turing to Steve Furber, designer of the ARM chip. After that I spent five years diving into game programming, and became a specialist in programming console GPUs, starting with the original Playstation, and moving onto the PS2, XBox and Gamecube.

The lure of the US was always in the back on my mind, and once I'd finally paid off my college loans and credit cards, I decided to take up one of the recruiters who kept contacting me, and spend some time working for an American company.

I ended up getting a job at Left Field, based just outside of LA. I accepted their offer in March 2001, but I had to wait until August for the H1B visa application to make it through the INS, not for any errors in the paperwork, that was just how long it took them to look at it.

By the time I got there, only 3 months were left on the project, but I had enough experience I was able to dive in and make a contribution. When the project was over, my manager took me aside and told me he and several other folks were leaving to start their own company. I eagerly followed, and for once the visa transfer process was trivial.

I stuck it out at the new company Kush for a year until the first project was done, but at the point where I was working 90 hour weeks and then got reprimanded for being late on a Sunday, I decided I needed a change. Over the last couple of years I'd developed some open-source image processing plugins to help out with my hobby of providing visuals for clubs and concerts, and I'd recently ported my 40 filters over to After Effects. I was astounded by the response, I'd stumbled into a market where people were charging several thousand dollars for a handful of effects, and I could produce popular ones very easily!

So, I left Kush and set out to build my own company with commercial versions of my effects. Unfortunately I quickly discovered that even with my modest savings and a proven market there was no way for me to set up a company in the US. As luck would have it, Apple approached me on the basis of my open-source technology, offered to buy what I'd created so far and give me a job. The most important part was they not only offered an H1B, they would also sponsor me for a green card.

Predictably the H1B process took longer than expected, and I was stuck back in the UK for 6 months again before I could start at Apple. Once I was there, I had to wait a year before the company would start the sponsoring process. Then, I began the first step, 'labor certification', basically proving my job was so specialized I wasn't shoving an American out. Once all the paperwork was in, I waited and waited, and it took over two years for them to finally look at my application. It was approved, and I was overjoyed, until I dug deeper through the results and realized my lawyer had filed me for an EB3 not an EB2. She'd mistakenly put me down as an unskilled worker, which would mean a decades-long wait! I had to refile under the right designation.

This time it went a lot more quickly, and I got the right certification back, and moved onto the next stage in my green card application. After lots more paperwork, including a medical examination to ensure I wasn't a psychopath or sexual deviant, I was back in another queue. This one took around 18 months, mostly because I got flagged for an FBI background check. I understand the need for checks, but it seemed slightly crazy that they had such a long delay, everyone was already resident in the US so anybody dangerous had a long time to get up to mischief.

Finally my green card came through in May 2008, five years after I started the process with Apple. The biggest sensation was relief, I could finally make plans knowing I'd be here permanently. I tidied up my work with Apple, and was free to start Mailana two months later in July.

So what's the point of this story? I love Apple dearly, I can't imagine a better large company to work for, but I'm a startup guy at heart and I ended up taking the corporate path for a long time purely because of visa issues. The Founder's Visa would have offered me a chance to create my own company much earlier, and hopefully employ a lot of Americans too! Beyond that, there was a constant sword of Damocles hanging over me all the way until I got my green card, at any point a paperwork SNAFU or employer decision could have kicked me out of the country.

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