Why foreign PhD grads of US uni’s should be invited to be entrepreneurs

With the immigration proposal under the spotlight in the US, I’ve discovered how little Americans in general know about immigration. Many people align “illegal immigrants” with Mexico, not with undocumented presence in the US. For those people, immigration is minimized. “Illegals,” has become a thinly veiled racist term. It appears prevalent across US society. I have even read a paper accepted to a journal that refers to “illegals” with its complete study looking purely at how media talks about Mexicans.

Immigration as an issue for those undocumented people and US society is real, and needs attention. I do not doubt that for a second. But this post is not about that.

There are other people here, like myself, who are here legally, on non-immigrant visas. Any foreign student in the US who came here for the purpose of study, carrying either of the student visas (which are incredibly expensive, by the way), are here under the proviso that they will definitely leave the country when their study is complete. Sure, you have a little buffer time, depending on a number of things including if you are doing a PhD and get OPT which gives you 18 months or so if you can work for a company when you finish – but ultimately you *have* to leave. That’s kind of what “non-immigrant visa” means.

In fact, if you do anything which might indicate an intent to stay in the US beyond your visa’s allowances, then the USCIS can revoke the visa altogether, and deport you. This means you can’t enter the green card lottery, and you can’t start a business – not even an LLC. Additionally, as a student you are only permitted to work 20 hours a week, on campus in addition to your study. You can work during summer anywhere you like in the US, but during semesters you are limited to the campus you are studying at.

If you’re the child of a student visa holder, you get to pay all the same fees (again, extremely expensive), but you’re not allowed to be employed at all. So forget any after-school jobs, which is really important most mothers would agree, to having your teenager learn some independence and earn their own money. They’re not allowed to.

Heck, they’re restrictive, but they are visas. We are guests in your country, and them’s the rules, kid. If you don’t like it, leave. Let me be clear – we are grateful for the opportunity to be here, and to study. That’s not the point.

You’d better get a lawyer, son

The immigration visa dance is ghoulish. It is more complex than my dad putting together IKEA furniture. More detailed and nuanced than Facebook’s privacy settings. I like to think I’m a pretty smart person, and English is my first language – but I have been caught out in the last four years more than once. And it carries a heavy price. I have been stuck with the kids in Canada for a few extra days when we were renewing my visa (you have to leave the country to renew it), but nobody told me I’d need papers from the university for the kids as well as for me. After all, I’m the student at the university, not my 12-year-old, right? There’s nothing quite like going to the Embassy in Ottawa and being told you don’t have all the documentation they need. Thank goodness CU’s international staff are incredible, and they got the extra papers to us (after quite a bit of stress and financial issues at our end – you have to demonstrate you have funds for every child, as well as yourself. Big bikkies. Think of it as a month at the Easter Show, or Christmas gifts for all the Duggars.) Also, I must say that Ottawa is a lovely place to be stuck in for a few extra days than you thought you’d be.

Everyone I know on a visa here is working with an immigration lawyer. Even if you’re only on a student visa. Particularly if you have family here too. It’s too risky not to be as well advised as possible. To state the obvious; lawyers are expensive. Mine tells me I’m the first foreign student he’s ever had that’s had two graduate level degrees of funding from the US. Most students come in, do one degree, and leave. I can really understand that. It is not nice being called an ‘alien’ all the time, having to get papers signed by the university before you leave the country for a trip home and then having to have them signed again when you return. It’s not pleasant to be monitored all the time, to be threatened with being “out of status” (ie illegal) if you don’t have enough course credits in a semester or keep your GPA to an acceptable level. It’s definitely not fun coming through immigration knowing that just because you have a visa that doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed in. The USCIS can turn you around and send you back home, on your dime, for any reason they feel like. Perhaps it’s necessary, but it’s still not something you want to do for an indefinite period. It kinda feels a little like being somewhere between on detention and monitored in a not-fun casino of chance(it’s not like you are about to do the sunbets sign up betting credits).

Anyway, I did a Masters degree, which was supported financially through the Journalism school. So I didn’t have to pay tuition. That made a huge difference – I couldn’t have afforded international student prices at CU without it. Then I was accepted into the PhD program at ATLAS, and have been funded again – partly through the ATLAS Institute and also through my work with Project EPIC, an National Science Foundation-funded research project. Yep, basically America is funding the work I do.

But when I finish my PhD, I will have to leave the country. As my visa states.

The proposals for reform

There is currently a proposal for immigration reform that says a green card will be stapled to PhD degrees. The mainstream media have taken this at face value. Most people think this means if foreign students get a PhD, they would get a green card.

But that’s not what the language of the blueprint for immigration reform, the contribution of the Gang of Eight senators, trying to do a clean sweep for immigration reform,  says.

It says “immigrants” who complete PhDs at American universities will get a greencard ‘stapled’ to it.

Hmmm. That word immigrant got me thinking – I’m on a non-immigrant visa. I’m not an immigrant. In the words of Sting “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien…” (I told you that alien word has a barb in it – even Sting referenced it in a song.) I am not an immigrant. Therefore, what this proposal appears to be saying is that if you’re an illegal immigrant, and you complete a PhD, you will get a green card – with no restrictions.

That’s great for all those illegal immigrants doing PhDs (I’m sure there’s a stack of them). Not me. I’m legally here.

There’s another aspect to the President’s proposal though. It says people like me, who are legally here with a student visa, getting a PhD in a STEM field, should get a green card too – if they go and work for a US company, and have that US company pay for the privilege of hiring them. Yep, someone like me, who sold my first company when I was 22 years old, who graduated from the inaugural session of the Silicon Valley Founder Institute, and has entrepreneurship in my veins, would complete a PhD and then be forced to take a job with an existing company instead of founding a company that would be aiming to create new jobs for Americans. Unlike an illegal immigrant who gets a PhD. They can do anything they like. Because they don’t have the papers.


“Do you want to stay?” is not the question. Instead, I like to think that there would be an option for me to stay. In fact, I’d like to think I’d be invited to stay. There should be a freaking red carpet rolled out for “aliens of outstanding ability” like me (yes, that’s actually the USCIS term. It really is. I can’t make this crap up.) I should earn a PhD, be given a greencard, a very large bag of M&Ms with my face on them, and a free car.* But there isn’t. And there is not one being discussed in these proposals.

I have sent an email to Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, a joint proposer of the bill being discussed, asking him to qualify the language – was the use of the word “immigrant” intentional? Were people on student visas not covered in the proposal? I received a form letter of five paragraphs that completely ignored my question. I have sent him another email. I’ll let you know what happens. I’m predicting that I may not get a second reply – I think they’re counting on people not pursuing this. In fact, his website simply invites people to “click a button” to show your support of the bill. The technology of his website was created by WebDesign499 and he worked with the agencies from https://the-indexer.com/web-development-companies/, a great webdesign company. Because apparently this whole mess can be fixed in just the click of a mouse. Delusional much?

Why should you care about foreign PhD students being forced to work for other people?

If you’re an American citizen, you should be concerned. People like me would be given greencards with conditions. They’re going to be forced into taking jobs in US companies that they are not best suited for. Entrepreneurs with PhDs are really well qualified to be innovators. They are well respected by investors, and many founding teams would kill to have one working with them. I have startup experience, management experience, and I’ll have a US PhD (largely funded by US citizens). It’s in everyone’s best interests for me to start my own company when I finish, and for me to be able to consider doing in the US. Then your US dollars won’t have funded all my work only to have me go home and take it all with me.

I invite you, if you’ve read this far (thanks for that!) to contact your senator and let them know the immigration issue is not as simple as these proposals attempt to make them out to be. Whatever your thoughts, being educated about the real impact these changes will make (or not) is important for both the US economy and US society.

 *Maybe asking for a car is a bit much. But I wouldn’t say no. I’d really like the M&Ms though.

photo credit (flags): tedeytan via photopin cc
photo credit (woman with sign): victoriabernal via photopin cc


  • Jo-thank you so much for explaining how this impacts you. I have to admit I have not been very well educated in the nuances of this issue. I appreciate you taking the time to spell it out. I’ll keep a closer eye on it now and bring it up when I talk with my reps.

  • Jo, you’ve opened my eyes. Honestly, I had no idea about what hoops students studying here jumped through in order to be able to do it. I also love your sign!

  • Jo, I had no idea how many hoops you had to jump through. The US should be happy to have someone with your experience start a business in the US.

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