Trump Travel Ban, Even While Blocked, Casts Long Shadow Over Immigrant Entrepreneurs
When Narges Bani Asadi’s mother received a late-stage cancer diagnosis two years ago, her parents obtained visas and traveled to the U.S. from Iran. Her older sister, who had been living in Iran, received a visa five days before President Donald Trump signed the first travel ban in late January. Bani Asadi’s family spent three weeks together before her mother passed away last month.
She and her family have stayed in the U.S. since, and they wonder when they might be able to reunite if they leave. Bani Asadi, who first came to Silicon Valley on a student visa in 2004 and is now a green card holder, is a VP for global biotech firm Roche. She had to miss an important annual planning session last month. The company’s legal team advised her, and several other employees, to skip important meetings abroad.
“Here is a melting pot, and everyone, as long as you want to do the right thing ... you can contribute and you can grow,” says Bani Asadi, who in 2011 founded Bina, a cancer research company that was acquired three years later by Roche. “After 12 years in this country, I was starting to feel that this can be a second home. My homeland is Iran, that’s where I grew up and my roots are there, but here was the place where actually I created my own identity, and I created a new life. But this executive order, I will say, really shook it up.”
Trump’s second travel ban did not go into effect this morning as planned. A federal judge in Hawaii on Wednesday issued a temporary restraining order on the executive order. Fifty-eight tech companies, including Airbnb and Lyft, filed an amicus brief in opposition to President Trump in the Hawaiian court. A judge in Maryland also ruled to suspend a portion of the ban this morning, and other lawsuits are still pending.
The executive order would have barred citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from being issued new visas for travel to the U.S. for 90 days, and no refugees would have been allowed to enter the U.S. for 120 days. It would not have applied to Iraqi citizens as the first order did. It also would not have applied to those who have green cards or visa holders who are currently in the U.S.
But for many people, especially immigrants, the bans have inspired concerns about travel disruption, discrimination and future restrictions -- and the federal court rulings against the two executive orders have not erased those fears.
“While I am happy for the freeze, I, and I assume many others like me, don't trust the system anymore,” Ali, a U.S.-based Iranian business owner, wrote in an email to Entrepreneur Wednesday evening. “Any day there could be a new ban, or judges may put the ban back. This uncertainty is actually worse than certainly knowing you cannot come back if you go out of the U.S. I would personally wait until the situation is more stable until I plan travels, although it's harming my business.”
Ali runs a company with three offices in Silicon Valley, London and Asia. He lives in the U.S., but he is not a permanent resident. In the past few years, he has entered the U.S. 13 times, and as an Iranian citizen, he says he has had to apply for a single-entry visa every time. He even qualified for an O-1 visa, which is reserved for “individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement.” But since President Trump signed the first executive order travel ban on Jan. 27, Ali says he’s made no plans to leave the U.S.
Ali has held teleconferences with his 20 employees, many of whom work outside the U.S. He won’t visit his family in Iran any time soon, because he's concerned that he won’t be able to return to the U.S. He requested anonymity out of fear of repercussions to his business and from the Iranian government.
“When you enter the U.S., you are jailed there. You cannot go back,” Ali says, noting that he believes this was the case before President Trump signed any executive orders. He calls the inability to travel freely an “unnecessary burden.”
Ali’s sentiments align with the advice that many immigration lawyers are providing in response to the travel ban. When President Trump signed the first executive order, Serotte Law, which represents hundreds of Silicon Valley startups and workers, told clients to inform their employees who were citizens of the seven restricted countries to refrain from traveling.
“Certainly, most of my clients from Iran have trepidation to travel home, and we suggest to not travel until the ban plays out a bit,” Michael Serotte told Entrepreneur in an email, “but since they are here, and working at their startup, or finishing school, life for them goes on.”
Serotte, a founding member of the U.S. Alliance of International Entrepreneurs, notes that entrepreneurs, investors, highly-skilled workers and students from the six specified countries likely wouldn’t have been affected under the new travel ban because many have valid visas.
Of course, many people are worried that the executive order indicates a heightened possibility of travel disruption. When President Trump signed the first executive order, it came as a surprise. People who had been issued visas, booked flights and even some who were already en route to the U.S. were deemed ineligible for entry into the U.S or detained upon arrival. The language of the new executive order -- and its advance announcement -- left little room to catch travelers off guard.
“Even before the ban, citizens from not only the restricted countries, but also countries that have had a recent history of political, economic and social upheaval, or a long history of fraudulent visa applications, have always been through an extensive vetting process,” Serotte says. “Even people from friendly countries can get caught up in the system and have their visas and entries delayed.”
U.S. citizens have been questioned in airports. Muhammad Ali, Jr., the son of the late famous boxer, claimed he was detained in a Florida airport last month and again in Virginia last week. Much is up to the discretion of Customs and Border Protection officers, who even have the authority to confiscate and search travelers’ electronic devices.
Employers and HR professionals should seek legal guidance if they are worried their employees may be affected by proposed travel restrictions, advises Jill Koob, vice president of sales solutions at Employer Flexible.
“They absolutely should contact a licensed immigration attorney that specializes in immigration law before making any job offer or any plans with that employee,” Koob says. “HR needs to be extremely sensitive to their employees that are on a visa, because there’s a lot of uncertainty and this may be impacting their personal life, which is going to impact their professional life.”
She also notes that employers should be aware of hiring challenges due to the fact that fewer potential hires and interns will be coming to the U.S., and she warns against implicit bias.
“Unfortunately, while you shouldn’t discriminate, an employer may consider if that employee is going to have an issue with family being able to visit or travel freely from their place of origin,” Koob says. “A lot of those questions you can’t ask during the interview process.”
Koob says that employers can help lessen the burden on their employees by allowing them to work remotely if they are unable to travel, if possible. She also suggests being cognizant of the fact that employees might need time during the workday to call loved ones in different time zones. Again, she emphasizes seeking legal help and not making any assumptions about visa expirations and revalidations.
Dan Berger, a partner at Curran & Berger, says he advises all of his clients to check in with his firm before they travel, no matter what country they’re from.
“One thing we’re doing with entrepreneurs is more aggressive visa consultations," Berger says. "We’re trying to move them off of temporary visas earlier and move them to a green card sooner.”
Bani Asadi got her green card through self-petitioning and qualified for a national interest waiver (EB-2 visa). In other words, she had to prove that her staying in the country was of national interest to the U.S.
Despite this fact, she says she’s still afraid she will not be welcomed back if she travels abroad. She’s also notes that, in the wake of the travel ban, she has had trouble focusing on the work that the U.S. government itself has deemed to be of such great importance.
Many of her colleagues feel the same. Bani Asadi says she recently attended a meeting within her company to discuss product and strategy, and it devolved into a discussion about the travel ban.
“They are just so hijacked by these anxieties, and they think, ‘Can I even stay here to do the work?’ Or, ‘Is it the most important problem?’ And think about it: Our work is in cancer research; we’re trying to detect and cure cancer,” Bani Asadi says. “‘Is this the most important problem I have to work on, or shall I go in the street and protest?’ People really ask me these questions.”
Bani Asadi says that while she would travel if the matter were urgent, she plans to wait to see if there are reports of any incidents of green card holders experiencing disruption. She applied for U.S. citizenship this past November and says she “cannot wait” until the process is finalized.
“I have the best interests of this country in mind,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where we were born and how we look, it matters that we are here to do good, serve this country and serve the world.”
This story has been updated to more accurately describe Bani Asadi's family's reason for choosing to remain in the U.S. at this time.