For Maneesha Mukhi, the American dream was elusive but compelling.
Mukhi is officially a citizen of India but never really lived there. She grew up nomadically because her father was a diplomat for India, so the family was stationed to a new country every three years. But none of those places ever felt like home. Until she landed in the U.S. as a freshman at Gettysburg College.
But her desire to stay and make it official would mean a years-long journey through the U.S. immigration system.
Although it can be challenging to make the transition from legal resident alien status to naturalized citizen, the U.S. has been the destination of choice for millions like Mukhi since about 1960. As of 2017, the U.S. is home to one-fifth of the world’s immigrants, according to American Community Survey (ACS) data.
For Mukhi, it would take a full array of visas. She spent four years on an F1 (for studying in the U.S.), one year on OPT (basically a work permit for those with student visas), had four H1 transfers (the specialty work visa) over nine years, and then went through three separate green card applications at three different companies as EB3 twice, and finally EB2 (both of which are for skilled graduate workers, but the difference in processing times is significant and varies by application). More than a decade later, she was awarded a green card and is still waiting for citizenship.
Her experiences often prompted questions from friends and strangers navigating their own immigration journey. As Mukhi came to realize, expertise of navigating the system was expensive and information was woefully scarce, even on the web. That formed the basis for her startup ImmiGo, an online marketplace that helps individuals and businesses find high-quality immigration attorneys in the U.S.
Living With Uncertainty
“The U.S. is the hardest country to migrate to, but I also think it is one of the most alluring,” she admits, noting that she always felt that she couldn’t live the way she wanted because of the restrictions that aren’t present in other countries. It started by dictating her college experience, where she elected to double major in economics (which is much easier to translate to a skilled job that would qualify for an H-1B visa) and French.
“Other countries like Canada make it much easier to pursue your professional dreams after college,” she observes. The U.S.’s northern neighbor offers college graduates a three-year work permit even without a job offer. Although she was drawn to social impact work as a newly minted graduate, it made more sense to go into the corporate world, as there would be a better chance an employer would sponsor her. “It is expensive to sponsor,” Mukhi notes, “and nonprofits and startups don’t have the money.”
Even some employers with deep pockets don’t want to do it. “I had an offer rescinded early on,” Mukhi recalls. They told her that their policy didn’t allow for them to hire people who need visas. Another interview process abruptly ended after the first round. Mukhi suspects she slipped through some interviews because of how American she sounds, but when an employer would ask for details and discover her immigrant status, she was knocked out of the running. (This is technically illegal but very difficult to prove.)
And even if you get in, filing with a certain job title sometimes means you can’t get a promotion. “The system is so outdated,” says Mukhi. “It’s frustrating for companies and individuals.”
“It’s really a lot of pressure,” she points out, to have your life tied to an employer. Mukhi describes the “very unsettling feeling” that a layoff could leave her with very little time to settle her affairs before she would have to leave the country. “Once you leave,” she adds, “it’s harder to come back.”
After spending 10 years in various corporate finance positions, she finally made the leap to work at a nonprofit organization and started thinking about launching her own venture. She soon became one of the first employees at a startup to gain an understanding of what it was like to build a company from scratch.
Help Finding Easy Answers To Tricky Questions
In the meantime, she says, a lot of people in her community knew about her immigration experience and began asking for help through their own processes. Mukhi describes “an isolating, unsettling feeling” as she worked towards getting a green card, but what made her feel better was information. “I was always reading, and piecing together information from the web,” she says, although most sites were not user-friendly.
“I’m not a lawyer or an authority,” Mukhi maintains, but even trying to find lawyers was unnecessarily burdensome. Online searches yield hundreds of potential candidates to sift through, Mukhi explains, but no easy way to tell, for example, which spoke a foreign language or if they took payment plans. “It’s nice to have a choice,” she contends, but in the end, you only need one qualified attorney.
So she set out to create a simpler solution with ImmiGo. The platform connects immigrants with a smaller, vetted network of experienced lawyers and also provides content written by these lawyers to tackle some thorny questions without the legal expense. Questions like, “Can my fiancée get a visa?” or “Can I lose my green card if I attend a protest?” aren’t always available through web searches.
It’s free to use the platform, but it’s not a pro bono service for immigrants. Attorneys pay a flat fee to be listed, regardless of how many clients they retain from it, and they will do quick initial consultations at no charge. Users can search lawyers by state or specialty, and by what language they speak. There are also listings for those who take payment plans because the process can be pricey.
Since the site launched last summer, Mukhi says they have seen double-digit growth in traffic and consumers. “Currently, we are small enough where I can tell you that every consumer that has retained an attorney via ImmiGo has had a positive outcome if their case has concluded,” Mukhi adds.
Again, Mukhi underscores the high level of stress attached to immigration, especially now that there is so much more red tape. “Having your work visa extended used to not be a big deal,” she says. Now many of the lawyers on ImmiGo are getting requests for “evidence” of the person’s job particulars, sometimes those requests are for information that was already included in the original application. And it’s about to get even more challenging.
The Impact of New Immigration Policies
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently announced that it will temporarily suspend premium processing, or fast processing, of H-1B visa petitions. The suspension will also apply to petitions seeking an exemption for individuals with a U.S. master’s degree or higher. This is an effort to reduce processing times, the agency said. However, not only is this nerve-wracking for those seeking the visa, it’s also tough on the employer.
Attorney Leon Rodriguez, of law firm Seyfarth Shaw in Washington, D.C., says, “The USCIS should have as a goal continuing to improve its workload forecasting to avoid the need to suspend premium service. The impact of those suspensions, taken together with a number of other burdensome policy changes, will have a severe impact on businesses that are seeking to hire needed professionals through this process.”
Those visa holders with spouses are also about to be affected by new policies. In the past two years, nearly 100,000 spouses (the majority of whom are women) of H-1B workers with pending green cards received H-4 work permits in the U.S. But the Trump administration is planning to stop the program.
“Today, more than ever, talking to a qualified person is not a bad idea,” Mukhi says. “Everyone deserves to feel secure in their home and put down roots,” she continues. It’s her American dream to help people realize theirs and demystify the process of becoming citizens.