by Thomas Cushman
‘Dev’ taught high school math for his gap year back in Sri Lanka before he moved to the U.S. in 2012 to start college. He now has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a graduate degree in Information/Business Systems. The first degree he completed in three years, the second he finished in one year, at night school, while he worked full time during the day. No doubt about it, Dev is intelligent and he is driven. But he is not staying in the U.S.
“This place is not worth my prime time,” he says, which is not quite how a native English speaker might phrase it but is nonetheless a perfect expression of what he means. “With everything that’s going on now? They don’t want us here. That’s clear.” Dev’s deep-set, dark emerald eyes flash as he says this with hints of anger, frustration and resignation blend in his voice. He has dark brown hair and light brown skin with thick black eyebrows. His eyebrows threaten to overwhelm those green eyes, which are never at rest and which have an intensity that can be a bit discomfiting.
“Why should I give this country the best years of my life? They don’t want me here; they don’t want people like me.” And when he says “people like me” he is not talking about smart people or educated people or driven people, he means people with brown skin.
While Dev was working full time during the day and finishing his graduate degree at night, he also started a business with a high school friend from back home. They met at a rather exclusive and rigorous boarding school they both attended. The two of them now have a Sri Lankan- based company with a few dozen full-time programmers. “We’re not going to get a lot larger,” Dev says, they’ll add just another 10 to 15 workers before they stop growing. “I just don’t think we should get bigger than 50 employees. Too hard to manage. That’s clear.” “That’s clear” is one of his favorite English phrases.
The entire business was created and operates without Dev ever traveling back home, not even once. “We just skype and call and text, we’re pretty much talking all the time.” In fact, he hasn’t been back to Sri Lanka since he finished his undergraduate degree. Not because he doesn’t want to visit but because he is on a student visa. Student visas come with a three-year allowance to stay and work after graduation. But if the holder leaves the U.S. at any time during those three years — maybe for a sister’s wedding or a grandparent’s funeral — the worker might not be allowed back. So Dev didn’t take the risk of leaving.
We tend to think of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant propaganda as all about Mexicans coming across the southern border. Or Muslim refugees being potential terrorists. That is bad enough. But a lot of other collateral damage is being done as well. All immigrants, regardless of their origin or why they came here, are getting the message that they are not welcome.
It’s not just rhetoric either, even without passing legislation the Trump administration is revising policies and re-writing regulations to make it tougher to get just about every category of immigrant visas. Each year more than a million foreign college students and highly-trained temporary workers who want to stay in the U.S. vie for just 120,000 permanent visas.
“I have four friends from home who were working in high tech in the Bay Area, they all went back, too,” Dev told me. “No one wants to stay, now. But the people at home — they’re moving to Germany, France, and Australia. Those countries want us.”
That too is clear — crystal clear. Other countries are making a play for the immigrants we are pushing away. France has started a new visa program for high tech workers, expanding immigration in this category. Last year, when the U.S. said it would stop processing premium H-1B visas for six months, Canada announced it would expedite them.
Donald Trump and his administration are intentionally sending away the very people who have made America great. Immigrants are just 12 percent of the American population, yet they founded or co-founded half of all Silicon Valley start-ups. One-quarter of U.S. global patents are awarded to technology created or co-created by immigrants. Half the people working in science or engineering with Ph.D.’s are immigrants.
Dev has already bought his one-way ticket home. He’s spending the next two months traveling the U.S., visiting those places he hasn’t yet seen. Then he’s taking his intelligence, his drive, and his startup, and going home.
Brain drain is only one category of damage Trump’s war on immigration has brought us. We won’t see the extent of this damage until Trump is long gone and long after Dev and his friends have also left. So when the next Google (co-founded by Russian immigrant Sergey Brin) starts up in France or China or Sri Lanka, we’ll know why.
Statistics and background information from:
Reuters, Sept. 20, 2017
McClatchy, Dec. 31, 2017
Pew Research Center, Feb. 26, 2018
CNBC Website, April 9, 2018
Vivek Wadhwa, “America’s Loss is the World’s Gain”
Gay Writes is a DiverseCity Writing Series writing group, a program of SLCC’s Community Writing Center. The group meets the 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month, 6:30–8 p.m., 210 E. 400 S., Ste. 8, Salt Lake.