‘Dev’ is from Sri Lanka. He has dark brown hair and light brown skin with thick, perfectly level eyebrows. The eyebrows threaten to overwhelm his deep-set, emerald eyes which are never at rest and which have an intensity that is not always comfortable. He is built mid-sized and thick, a soccer-player build, and he does like his soccer. He also likes a couple games of pool on a Saturday night, which is what he was doing when I met him.
Dev taught high school math for his ‘Gap Year’ back in Sri Lanka before he moved to the US in 2012 to start college. He now has a Bachelor 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, 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 US and building a life or career here.
“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.” That’s clear is one of his favorite phrases. “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.” When he says “people like me” he could be talking about smart people or educated people or driven people but he is also definitely talking about people with brown skin.
While Dev was working fulltime 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 working for them. “We’re not going to get a lot larger,” Dev says, “I just don’t think we should get bigger than that. Too hard to manage. That’s clear.”
The entire business was built and now operates without Dev travelling back home. “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 go visit but because he is on a student visa. Student visas come with a three year allowance to stay and work after school is completed. If the holder leaves the US at any time during those three years – for a summer vacation, say, or maybe a sister’s wedding, or a grand parents’ funeral – the worker might not be allowed back. So Dev just didn’t take the risk of leaving. We so often have such little knowledge of what people sacrifice to start building their ‘American’ dream.
We tend to think of Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant propaganda as all about Mexicans coming across the southern border or Muslim refugees being potential terrorists. Those inaccuracies are bad enough. But a lot of additional collateral damage is being done as well. Most all immigrants, regardless of where they’re from or why they wanted to come here, are getting the message that they are not welcome. It’s not just rhetoric either, even without passing legislation the Trump administration is setting policies and re-writing regulations to make it tougher to get just about any category of immigrant visa.
Each year more than a million foreign college students and highly-trained temporary workers who want to stay in the US vie for just 120,000 permanent visas. The temporary worker program is larger, granting about 750,000 visas each year. Or at least they were. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service is using regulations and bureaucracy to make it more difficult for employers to get these visas. Also, under the ‘Buy American, Hire American’ initiative, the administration is decreasing the number of years foreign workers are allowed to stay and the number of extensions for which they can file.
“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 and 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 just started a new high tech visa program, expanding it’s immigration in this area, they intend to become a high-tech hotbed. Last year, when the US 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 a segment of the very people who have made America great. Immigrants are just 12% of the American population yet they founded or co-founded half of all Silicon Valley start-ups. One-quarter of US global patents are awarded to technology created or co-created by immigrants. Half the people working in science or engineering with PhD’s are immigrants.
Dev has already bought his one-way ticket home. He’s spending the next two months travelling the US, visiting those places he hasn’t yet seen. Then he’s taking his intelligence, his drive, and his start-up, and going home. Brain drain, that’s what Trump’s war on immigration has brought us. We won’t see the extent of the damage to the United States until he 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.