Resistance Through Education: Undocumented Students Start the School Year

Posted by Justin Nguyen Phuoc on 09/10/2015

JustinBlog_CoverMy name is Justin Nguyen Phuoc, and I am an undocumented immigrant.

Disregard what T.S. Eliot said about April. For an undocumented student, September is the cruelest month. It is that time of the year when students across the nation rush to their dorms, bid goodbye to their families, buy books, and crunch courses. Meanwhile, undocumented students are struggling between jobs and providing for their families – and dealing with the uncertainty of being able to attend college.

This is exactly what I have endured over the course of the college process, and over the past three years.

At the age of fifteen, I was forced to move from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to the United States in the cold winter of 2012. Vietnam’s evictions, engendered by poverty and corruption, left my parents with no choice but to abandon everything they had so that I could have a shot at “the American Dream.” I watched as they struggled to hang on to the little we had. I remember when, one afternoon, my dad told me “we’re moving.” I assumed that he meant to another house because of all the eviction notes we were getting in the mail, but he actually meant we were moving to the United States. As a naive teenager, I pretended this was a game, like the one with the frog crossing the road, except this was “Justin’s family crossing the Pacific Ocean.” Since my parents did not speak a word of English, I had to handle the entirety of the paperwork, from booking the interview to signing papers for the consulate, all in the name of pursuing an education and a better life.

Once I arrived to the United States, I immediately took a serving position at a local Pho restaurant in Pawtucket, RI. I worked this job while juggling AP classes, moving between motels and guest homes, and helping my parents pay rent and tuition for the private high school I was attending. For a year, my family crammed into a small one-bedroom apartment. I even rotated sleeping on the floor and on an air-mattress before we moved to Boston for better opportunities.

In Boston, I committed myself to academia, thinking that if I worked twice as hard as others I would be able to go to college, regardless of my undocumented status. By the end of my senior year, I had maxed out the number of schools I was allowed to apply to using the Common Application online (it is 20 schools in case you were wondering). I also applied to at least 15 different scholarships; won first place at the 2015 Boston city-wide Science Fair; became a finalist for the Intel International and Regional Science Fair; played on my school’s volleyball team and competed in the state championship in wrestling; was able to network with political figures through the Student Immigrant Movement as a regional organizer. I did more than I could possibly imagine; and yet, I was still denied from scholarships and universities simply due to my undocumented status.

I was on the brink of forfeiting, but against all odds, the Boston Scholar Athletes recognized my potential and awarded me a full two years tuition to attend the Roxbury Community College.

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I am both thrilled to and terrified of going back to school this fall. I am excited simply because I have been given a shot to pursue my dream. It is not every day that an undocumented student receives full tuition to attend college; therefore, I feel an enormous pressure to succeed. On the other hand, I fear that I won’t be able to juggle providing for my family, completing my education, and advocating for my own rights. Living as an undocumented student comes with a bag full of uncertainty. I have an increasingly irrational fear of losing all that I have worked for in the blink of an eye.

With the odds and the broken U.S. immigration system clearly stacked against me, I see why nationally only 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates go on to college. This means that of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students that graduate every year, only 6,500 move on to higher education. An even smaller percentage of undocumented students actually graduates from college. There are students out there who are just as smart, determined and willing as myself, and yet they do not get to go to college due to their immigration status.

These circumstances are why I continue to fight for my dream and the dreams of hundreds of thousands of other hardworking undocumented students living in America.
Here in Massachusetts, the Student Immigrant Movement has launched a campaign call “Dare to Dream MA” to pass a legislation that would allow undocumented student to have access to in-state tuition with financial aid. We have fought tirelessly for this bill for what seems like an eternity. But for the first time in a long while, we finally have a shot of getting this bill out of the Joint Committee of Higher Education and onto the voting floor with backing from both parties. Even with these endless efforts and determination, we still encounter opposing forces that would love nothing more but to tear us down and destroy our progress.

Just imagine the possible revenue that undocumented immigrants could generate if they had higher paying jobs due to skills obtained through higher education. Undocumented immigrants are already paying taxes, and yet they are denied from reaping their benefits. In 2010, undocumented immigrants contributed $150 million in taxes to Massachusetts alone. Increased access to higher education will only make this contribution larger.

My future, and the futures of other undocumented immigrant students, should not be left up to chance. Education is a human right and there should be systemic avenues for everyone to access it.

Your undocumented neighbor,

Justin Nguyen Phuoc
Boston Regional Organizer, Student Immigrant Movement

A Step Forward: Modernization of the Visa Bulletin

Posted by Todd Schulte on 09/09/2015

We applaud the administration’s decision to modernize the Visa Bulletin for hardworking immigrants who will now be able to contribute more fully to our communities and our economy. This is a good step toward improving the system for those who are stuck in an outdated and broken green card process by increasing worker mobility and allowing family members to work in the United States. We’re thankful to all of FWD.us’ volunteers and our allies for pushing hard for these changes, but this is a reminder that our legal immigration system remains broken and we need Congress to act.

We encourage anyone who thinks they may be eligible for this new program to visit the FAQ section of the USCIS website for more information.

Stanford-Spun Startup's Immigrant Founders Fight for the Freedom to Innovate

Posted on 08/20/2015

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The fight for the freedom to innovate resonates deeply with P.J. Cobut and Elad Ferber, two immigrant entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Belgian-born P.J. and Israeli engineer Elad began the blueprints for what would become Echo Labs during their first year at Stanford Business School in 2012. The two innovative students created a high-tech fitness wearable device that ultimately scored them a spot on the list of “Stanford Business Students Who Are Going to Change the World.”

In January 2013, P.J. and Elad started putting in hours outside the classroom to launch Echo Labs, a company building a health wearable that allows for continuous monitoring and streaming of vitals and physiological metrics of their users to improve care and understanding of the human body.

With the talent, the cutting-edge technology, a growing eight-person team, and $1.5 million in seed funding from some of Silicon Valley’s top investors, little stood in the entrepreneurs’ way – with the exception of two visas, entangled in America’s broken immigration system.

“You can address a business risk by surrounding yourself with the best and brightest people…and working hard and smart. With immigration, there is little that you can do to tilt the odds in your favor,” P.J. told FWD.us in an interview.

P.J. and Elad knew that they would need to apply for H-1B visas for the following year if they wanted any chance of taking Echo Labs to the next level in the United States post-graduation in June 2014. (The H-1B visa is designed for high-skilled workers typically in STEM fields.)

Because the United States lacks a clear immigration pathway for foreign entrepreneurs – even those with venture funding – P.J. and Elad had no choice but to let their and Echo Labs’ fate be decided by the H-1B lottery, a broken process that randomly selects H-1B visa recipients from hundreds of thousands of applications.

P.J. and Elad’s chances were slim; they were two of nearly 233,000 H-1B petitions submitted – a number that maxed out the application cap for the 2016-2017 year in less than a week this past April.

One week passed. Then two, then three. Echo Labs continued to work on its technology as the startup founders prepared a back-up plan, their personal and professional lives up in the air.

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It wasn’t until four weeks after submitting his application did P.J. get word that he had been one of the few applicants chosen at random to receive an H-1B visa. Elad, however, wasn’t as fortunate. After hearing that he did not get selected in the H-1B lottery, he decided his next best bet would be an O-1 visa, which is granted to individuals of extraordinary abilities in science, business, education, or athletics.

Two months later, Elad received good news. He was approved for an O-1 visa; the future of Echo Labs was no longer in limbo.

“The reality is, we were very lucky. Without proper legislation for entrepreneurs, the odds of an entrepreneur getting a visa are very slim,” said P.J. 

Read on to hear from P.J. and Elad about the moment they found out they received their H-1B and O-1 visas, and their advice to aspiring immigrant entrepreneurs.

FWD.us: Describe what it was like for those five months waiting to hear back about your visas. What impact did it have on your lives?

P.J.: As entrepreneurs, we have embraced uncertainty as a way of life. We know that our company could go bust, that our product couldn’t sell or that we could lose our jobs tomorrow. We do it because building a company from the ground up is an amazing adventure and because we are fundamentally motivated by our mission of making healthcare more accessible and understandable. The uncertainty around getting a visa is a completely different type of uncertainty. You can address a business risk by surrounding yourself with the best and brightest people (employees, advisors, investors) and working hard and smart. With immigration, there is little that you can do to tilt the odds in your favor.

Net, we had an uncontrollable risk hanging over our heads and we had to make backup plans in case it wouldn’t work. Where will we move? What other countries can be a good home for a technology start-up? Would our employees follow us? Would we be able to recruit talent of this caliber somewhere else? This was a major distraction from our focus.

Was there ever a particular moment when you thought that the difficulty of getting a visa wasn’t worth the struggle?

Elad: It’s difficult not to think about the worst case scenario and as leaders of our company, we have a duty to do just that (and prepare for the worst). That being said, we always thought it was worth pursuing because of the responsibility we have to our employees, our investors, and ourselves. We have been living in California for three years now and building our company and our lives here, so we wanted to give it our best shot. At least there would be no regret. If our visas hadn’t come through, at least we would have had a back-up plan.  

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Take us back to when you found out that you received your H-1B and O-1. 

P.J: We found out about the H-1B a couple of months before we heard about the O-1…Without a solution for Elad, my H-1B was worth nothing, and we would both have to move with our company. When we heard the news about Elad’s O-1, we were actually in two different places. I was stuck at home completely sick, and it was the only thing that made me feel better that day. Elad was in the office with our employees and some of our investors, and he received a standing ovation. We then went back to work and still need to find time to throw the party!

What does Echo Labs plan on doing next now that both of you have a long-term solution to working in the U.S.?

Elad: With this major risk out of the way, we are now able to fully focus on building our business. We have started to hire again (there are eight of us now) and are making tremendous progress on the technology. We have also started another session with StartX, the Stanford University affiliated incubator. Things are looking up!

Would you give any piece of advice or message to entrepreneurs facing their own visa struggles?

P.J.: In the current immigration context, I would think twice about coming here in the first place. Yes, Silicon Valley is an amazing place to build a company. There is a huge pool of talented people who want to change the world and a great community of investors. That being said, if you aren’t here already (e.g. in school, like Elad and I were), I’d seriously weigh the odds of you getting a visa. If you are in school but haven’t started a business yet, I would weigh the same odds. The reality is, we were very lucky. Without proper legislation for entrepreneurs, the odds of an entrepreneur getting a visa are very slim.

If you could sit down and have a personal conversation with lawmakers who could change the way our immigration system works, what would you say?

Elad: The facts are simple: (1) small businesses drive the economy forward by creating growth and jobs (2) immigrants are building 50 percent of companies in Silicon Valley today and have built 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies. We need immigration legislation that reflects this reality and supports immigrant entrepreneurs. When you think about criteria for entrepreneur visas, don’t leave it up to chance but look at objective criteria that make an entrepreneur successful: jobs created, capital raised, IP created, future potential. This is not a complex issue. It’s basic economics and it’s a win-win for everyone. 

Here's What Mass Deportation Would Mean

Posted by Todd Schulte on 08/19/2015

Statement from FWD.us President Todd Schulte:

The anti-immigrant voices yelling for mass deportation have no serious interest in fixing our country’s broken immigration system – although it is interesting they are finally admitting what the hard-line anti-immigrant restrictionists have taken pains to avoid for decades: they want to forcibly expel millions of immigrants, period.

This isn’t partisan; this is about American values: Republicans, Democrats, and independents have long understood that immigrants grow our economy and have built this nation. We hope, that despite a few loud voices, leaders from both parties will speak out on what they know is true; to remain competitive in a global economy we need to allow talented people of all backgrounds to contribute. What’s absurd is not just these “plans,” but that those who would seek to represent Americans as president are falling all over themselves to support backward policies that would rip apart American families and collapse our economy.

Let’s start with forced mass deportation: the idea that the United States would best be served by creating a police state to round up approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants and deport each and every one of them. Beyond this morally reprehensible idea of breaking apart millions of families – removing a population equivalent to 12 states and the District of Columbia – this number doesn’t include the harm to the roughly 4 million U.S. citizen children with an undocumented parent. Additionally, the discussion around revoking birthright citizenship means supporters of this idea want to rewrite our Constitution in order to expel millions of U.S. citizens to countries where they’ve never lived.

Adding to the terrible moral cost of splitting apart families and deporting U.S. citizens, the cost to our economy would be astronomical: The conservative American Action Forum recently released a study showing that deporting 11.5 million people would cost U.S. taxpayers $400 to $600 billion dollars, and would take at least 20 years to complete. Even worse, this mass deportation would reduce our GDP by $1.7 trillion – over 5%. Many industries would be hit hard, others – like agriculture, construction and hospitality – would be devastated. Try imagining  California or Florida without agriculture. The approximately $100 billion in payroll taxes that undocumented immigrants pay into Medicare and the Social Security Trust Fund would dry up.

Developing the massive law enforcement, surveillance systems, and prison camps necessary to round up a population the size of Ohio is anathema to American values. Of course, these reasons are exactly why immigration reform supporters as diverse as the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, tech entrepreneurs, the Farm Bureau, business and organized labor leaders, Jewish community groups, manufacturers, law enforcement officers, and veterans organizations agree that this approach is hurtful and wrong. As for the American people, 9 in 10 Americans from all walks of life agree that rounding up and deporting those who came here as kids is wrong.

Americans understandably pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, with a culture that welcomes and accepts new and aspiring Americans. This has always been and continues to be one of our greatest competitive advantages. Of course, American politics has also long been filled with anti-immigrant voices, who rant that immigrants are taking jobs away from “real” Americans. But it’s as false today as it was when Irish were told they need not apply, or Jews or Catholics were told they weren’t welcome here. Study and after study makes it clear that not only do immigrants create jobs for native-born Americans and grow the economy, but they overwhelmingly do not compete with native-born Americans for existing jobs. But don’t ask us or even those economists who most strongly support immigration reform: even critical economists, like George Borjas, admit that immigrants don’t undercut native-born American wages. In an April 2013 study, Borjas concluded that the current level of immigrant workers in the United States raises U.S. GDP by about $1.6 trillion relative to where it would be with zero immigration. Put simply, increased immigration pushes up wages for native-born Americans.

The idea we should radically restrict pathways for highly-skilled immigrants to come and stay here is – again – just wrong. We need to fix our nation’s badly broken immigration system so that more highly-skilled immigrants can create jobs here in the United States – and that we can continue to be a magnet for the best and the brightest from all over the world; our global competitors aren’t waiting while we waste time. That means creating a Startup Visa to help entrepreneurs create the next generation of innovation here in the U.S.; it means clearing the green card backlog to allow those who qualify and want to stay here to build their lives and grow our economy, and it means increasing the numbers of H-1B visas and reforming the program so that we don’t run out of spots in the current yearly allotment for this critical program within only a few days every year. Additionally, these programs need to be modernized to ensure they are working appropriately – something that hasn’t happened because Congress has not taken action in decades.
The evidence is clear that high-skilled immigrants create American jobs. All of this framework has broad bipartisan support. And we know that highly-skilled immigrants don’t displace native-born American highly-skilled workers. It’s a false choice to say we can’t grow the economy and protect Americans jobs. In fact, they improve overall wages of U.S.-born highly-skilled workers. Some good stats:

• Every foreign student who graduates from a U.S. university with an advanced degree and stays and works in a STEM-related field creates an additional 2.62 American jobs.
• Fields with high percentages of H1-Bs not only have unemployment rates substantially lower than the national average, but those geographic areas with more H1-Bs have lower rates of unemployment and higher economic growth.
• 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants
• For every 100 H-1B workers, an additional 183 jobs among U.S. native-born workers are created.
• Immigrants are nearly twice as likely to start their own business as native-born Americans.

So while there are many points of reasonable disagreement, the basic choices are pretty simple: maintain a broken status quo, fix the system and let people come forward and legally fully contribute to society, or round up millions of people, split apart American families, and collapse the economy. These choices aren’t about partisan politics – this is common sense – although anyone advocating mass deportation and severely restricting legal immigration knows nothing about today’s electoral map.

We will continue to work for an immigration system that works better for American families and our economy – one that allows hardworking undocumented immigrants to contribute fully to our communities, rather than face mass deportation supported by a small handful of anti-immigrant voices.

For more information that breaks down the anti-immigrant narrative and illustrates the importance of immigrants to the U.S. economy please see this fact sheet from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: DEBUNKING THE MYTH THAT IMMIGRATION HARMS AMERICA.