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Ernestine Fu Headshot

The Need for Immigration Reform

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My parents came to the United States from Communist China in the 1980s with $40 and a bag of clothes. My father was prevented from taking the national college entrance exam because he graduated from high school when Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution. He was fortunately able to apply for a student visa to leave for the U.S. When he arrived in California, he worked hard, staying late in empty classrooms, and earned high marks. After graduation, however, it was difficult for my father to find a job because few employers wanted to deal with his immigration papers. After being underpaid and working long hours for a small software company, he finally earned his green card at the age of 43.

Fast forward twenty years - America's immigration system is still broken. Today, there are 11 million aliens who are working just as hard as my father worked and are an indispensible part of our economy. Yet all but a few cannot gain permanent residency.

An example comes from a startup company, Jetlore, that I identified while working for the venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners. Jetlore is a local startup that consists of about a dozen employees from countries such as Romania, Ukraine, Mexico, as well as the U.S. It was founded by two Stanford PhD students who are also immigrants. Through hours of programming and hard work, they commercialized their award-winning research on artificial intelligence and natural language processing. For many years, they have been living in Silicon Valley as temporary guests. One is in her 7th year and still waiting for a green card. The other founder recently received his after waiting for 12 years.

Immigration reform is essential to the growth of our economy. AT&T, Google, and eBay were all founded by immigrant engineers and rank among the list of America's most successful Fortune 500 companies. Of the companies on that list, over 40% were founded by first or second generation Americans. We need to provide visas and green cards for immigrant entrepreneurs who are launching businesses in the U.S. and are helping to fuel our nation's economic growth and innovation.

We also need to retain highly sought-after graduates, such as those with STEM degrees, and ensure that they can gain green cards and eventually permanent residency. We are currently attracting some of the smartest people from around the world to our universities. We are currently not, however, providing incentives for them stay in the U.S. after they graduate. This must change as the U.S. needs their talent.

In meeting with both Democrats and Republicans, I have come to realize that immigration reform can only happen if it is comprehensive. And, it should be comprehensive. We need to reward hard work for both highly-skilled workers and also for those undocumented workers who work on our farms, as janitors and household help, and in other similar blue-collar jobs.

We cannot afford to have a two-tiered workforce of aliens in which some have rights and privileges that others do not simply because the top tier possesses special skills. This matter of basic fairness is exacerbated by the reality that millions of undocumented workers in the U.S. are currently exploited by unsafe working standards. They have no chance to protest without risking deportation. We need to address the plight of these workers. Many are paid substandard wages and forced to toil in dangerous as well as illegal working conditions. Our nation of immigrants needs their energy and abilities.

Political leaders in both parties are calling for immigration reform. Let's finally do it!