April 28, 2001
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Kanwal Rekhi takes up immigration issue

Suleman Din

Kanwal Rekhi Kanwal Rekhi is a legend in Silicon Valley, for his inspired generosity as an angel investor, his mentorship to young Indian entrepreneurs, and for the charismatic leadership he provided to help make The Indus Entrepreneurs a global phenomenon.

Now, Rekhi has joined the Immigrant Support Network to band with foreign tech workers fighting to change 'outdated and strict immigration laws'. But Rekhi singles out Indians secure in the US for not doing enough, and would want the laws changed so that a new temporary visa could be created, and family reunification-based immigration drastically reduced.

"I'm trying to start a debate [on problems in the immigration system] by using my high profile to draw attention to the situation," said Rekhi, an investor and mentor reportedly worth more than $500 million.

"I speak to politicians at every opportunity. I don't have to get to involved for the sake of getting involved. My goal is to increase awareness and hopefully down the road help change the immigration process and laws."

ISN head Murali Devarakonda welcomed Rekhi's addition to the team, but said getting him aboard was tough. He recounted how he approached Rekhi at a TiE meeting, after being ignored by many speakers at the group's events.

"Whenever there was a feature speaker, I would bring up the issues of immigrant workers," said Devarakonda. "But I was often ignored, even though much of the audience responded to what I said."

Rekhi was quick to tell him that he couldn't help; Devarakonda was seeking funds to jump-start his advocacy group. "We needed to prove ourselves first," Devarakonda said.

But after success in organizing immigrant workers (ISN now boasts over 4,500 members in California alone) and a timely spam update on ISN's activities to "every angel investor and VC I knew," Devarakonda was pleased and surprised to find an email from Rekhi.

"I have no real reason to get involved, but I was looking at the situation from my own perspective," explained Rekhi. "It's tough to arrive here, and settle down. My sense is that these people have been hobbled by restrictions, and it's very unfair.

"The restrictions [ie, losing status if one is laid off] are not worthy of the US as a society that has been well-served by immigrants, and definitely has been well-served by Indians in the hi-tech industry.

"My generation came here and became strong Americans. We were productive citizens, creating wealth and jobs for society, everybody was a winner. This whole new thing bothers me because it ties people down, disenfranchises them economically... and I am worried that this will not produce a strong American economy or help entrepreneurship.

"So my point is to raise awareness that this situation is not very healthy for society, and if the US needs engineers, it must step up and offer them a fairer deal."

That awareness, Rekhi said, is partly not there because Indians in the US with secure status and employment haven't done enough to help those who are starting out -- and he doesn't hesitate to include himself in that group.

"Most people who have visas don't care about immigration problems, people like me, who are citizens and are green card-holders. They are not participatory in this debate... and people who care don't have a say in the process."

As part of getting involved in advocacy, Rekhi has thought over some of his ideas about how to reform the US immigration process.

"If the US needs temporary workers, it should design a simple temporary visa; six years is not temporary, it is long-term," he said. "If they are temporary, why are they charging social security?

"It's hard enough to adjust to a foreign environment, but then not to have economic freedom to protect yourself? It is very hard to be temporary in the US. You have to put your roots down, buy a car, sign leases, send your children to school... there is nothing temporary about life here."

Another idea proposed by Rekhi, one that definitely could stir the ire of some pro-immigrant proponents, is the scaling back of family reunification-based immigration.

"When immigrants were first allowed in the '60s, they were engineers and highly skilled people,'' Rekhi explained. "Then there was family reunification, and parents and brothers and sisters were allowed in. All of a sudden, primary immigration of professionals became secondary immigration of taxi-drivers, and non-professionals. That secondary immigration was of very poor quality, and that caused a backlash. For one engineer, you'd get 10 others."

Noting that there are many who would take offence to the idea, Rekhi continued to explain why it should be done.

"It's time to go back to the original setup, where you allow professionals and only their spouses and children, not one's brothers, sisters, parents... The US cannot take everyone in the world," he said.

Again, he does not leave himself out of his radical suggestion. "I brought my brothers and sisters here, don't get me wrong, but none of them turned out... if you let things continue, you get an endless loop of poor quality immigration. I know that some people would get upset about that, but that's how you get a backlash [against immigrant workers]."

Rekhi recalls a different country with different priorities when he first immigrated. The Space Race and fear of Russia becoming technologically superior prompted the US to open immigration to skilled foreigners like Rekhi. The processes were simpler, Rekhi said: for instance, he got his green card in six weeks.

"We were given very fair treatment, in that we were given a visa, and told that we were on our own, nobody helped you get a job... the only commitment that we had to make was that we wouldn't go on welfare," he said.

Considering the difficulty foreign workers are going through with the slump in economy, Rekhi remembered when he went through some tough times also.

"The recession we went through in the early '70s was bigger than the one that we have now," he said. "I was laid off three times, but you have to survive. I moved from New Jersey to Florida and then to California in that time." When he first arrived in the US, Rekhi said he took up odd jobs to support himself, including working in a restaurant.

And though he didn't fear being out of status, there were other things to consider.

"We were subject to draft!" he exclaimed. "Society gave you a visa, you were a green card-holder, so you could be sent to Vietnam. But that was not unfair, because everybody was being drafted. Society didn't do us any favors, but it didn't hold us back either."

Eventually, Rekhi would find success founding Excelan, a computer networking company sold to Novell Inc in 1989 for more than $250 million. He can include Exodus Communications Inc, a company started by K B Chandrasekhar, which he invested in and acted as a mentor.

Rekhi said it is stories like these that are invaluable contributions to the US economy and its society that immigrants bring, and should be recognized.

"Immigrants have revitalized the country from time to time, and have done very well, we have seen it in previous waves: of the Jewish, Italian and Irish ... the only time we haven't done anything for the US is when we have not been fully empowered."

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