City

The Immigrant on My Couch

My future brother-in-law has an MBA and a master's in electrical engineering from the University of Delaware. But thanks to current immigration policies, it's been nearly impossible for him to get a job in America.


trump immigration policies

Akirt Sridharan, my fiancé’s brother, lived in our Fairmount apartment after our legal immigration policies made it nearly impossible for him to get a job in America. Photograph by Justin James Muir

It’s 6 a.m. in Fairmount, and my fiancé, Anush, and I are tiptoeing around our living room, getting ready for a run before work. We pass quietly by Anush’s brother, Akirt, who’s snoring lightly on our couch, where he’s slept for the past three months.

Akirt is 26. He’s tall and lanky, but he curls up small on his makeshift bed, pulling his legs in toward his body, wrapping a floral comforter around him as though he’s protecting himself from something. He’s handsome — when we go out, girls take notice, giggling and making up excuses to head in our direction. His mess of thick Jonas Brothers hair pokes out from the pillow as he stirs.

Silently in sync, we make our way past him and out the front door into the weak predawn light. Anush, the older of the two brothers, is 31, and I am in love with him. He teases me as we set off down Fairmount Avenue at an easy pace, and I laugh. He’s handsome, like Akirt, but in a more mature way: He has a neat, close-cropped beard, deep brown eyes, long arms, and strong legs from biking to work at CHOP every day. We’re young (ish) and we’re happy, but we’re afraid, too.

We’re afraid because of timing, of history, of politics, of the tides turning against us. We’re afraid because my brother-in-law-to-be, Akirt Sridharan, currently sound asleep on the couch, isn’t a deadbeat, and he didn’t lose his home suddenly in a fire. The main reason he’s on our couch is because he’s from India and living in Donald Trump’s America.

Before you stop reading — I know, “not more Trump analysis, please God” — let me back up. Akirt has a master’s in electrical/computer engineering and an MBA from the University of Delaware, which he earned in May 2017. While he was there, he worked with his professor on launching a start-up solar cell company, SHIO (the S is for Sridharan), developing a lower-cost solar cell for homes. He finished his two graduate degrees in only three years and set out to find a job under what in U.S. immigration law is called “optional practical training” (OPT) — up to three years that international students are granted after studying here to contribute to the American economy and further their knowledge.

After graduation, Akirt was excited about his future, but over the past year and a half, he has slowly joined a growing cohort of foreign-born Philadelphia-area graduates who have advanced degrees and skills but are being rejected for jobs by companies here and nationwide. Instead, they’re seeking employment in other countries: Canada, Germany, India, Australia.

Why? In a word: Trump. We’ve long had visa issues in this country, but President Trump’s “Buy American and hire American” executive order, issued three months after he took office, has subtly hampered legal immigration — yes, legal, not illegal. Along with other moves by this administration, it has made big companies less likely (and less able) to hire highly skilled immigrants, and it has caused more applications for H-1B visas — the ones that allow highly skilled international candidates to work in the U.S. — to be denied. Though the President claims his intention is to stop ne’er-do-well immigrants from taking over the country, what he really seems to be stopping is innovation and the hiring of top talent.

“After the executive order, the immigration service became much more rigid and stringent,” Philadelphia immigration attorney Nataliya Rymer says of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees the issuing of visas. “Denials and requests for evidence have gone up, and the adjudications have become more difficult. The change is rooted in executive-order language, and they’ve made no secret of it.”

Thanks to these changes and the increasing instability in our immigration system, many U.S. companies are adding “U.S. workers only” to their employment listings. As a result, fewer highly skilled legal immigrants are being hired despite their qualifications and degrees — and despite the literal hundreds of thousands of dollars many have poured into American master’s and PhD programs.

Akirt is one of them. He arrived at our place one weekend in July, visiting from Atlanta, where he was living. He’d been applying for software tech and solar jobs for more than a year and had bounced around the country in his pursuit.

Akirt has joined a growing cohort of foreign-born Philadelphia-area graduates who have advanced degrees and skills but are being rejected for jobs by companies here and nationwide. Why? In a word: Trump.

The second night Akirt was here, Anush had to be in D.C. for a work event, so his brother and I sat on the back porch in the warm summer air.

We chatted, and the night wore on to that place where reality seems a little thinner and detached. We started talking about Big Picture Stuff. Like: happiness. What is it? How do you even achieve it? Did we have it? Was the point of life just work?

Akirt told me that things had been hard for the past year. He told me that someone he knew who’d graduated from another U.S. master’s program had been in the same situation — unable to find a job in his field for months and months, due to visa issues. After so much investment in his education from his family, the pressure had become too much — and he killed himself.

Akirt wasn’t friends with the guy, but he’d crossed paths with him. He could kind of get where he was coming from.

The quality of the air on the porch changed. I wanted to go to bed, but I stayed up talking long after I normally would have.

Anush came home the next day. I kissed him hello and pulled him aside.

“He can’t go back to Georgia,” I said matter-of-factly.

So Akirt moved in with us.

Though loud, happy-go-lucky and warm by nature, Akirt seemed dimmed. He felt purposeless and adrift — like he was letting everyone down and, more so, like it was his fault. It wasn’t. Larger forces are at work.

“The U.S. was a country where you’d go and make your dreams come true,” Akirt once told me. “It’s funny, because five years ago, my dad thought the U.S. was the best place to go for an education and work, but his perception has changed so drastically that now he thinks it’s the worst place to be. And for that change to happen over the span of five years, there must have been something drastically wrong.”

I was there when Akirt graduated from Delaware in May of 2017, in his royal blue robe and mortarboard. His parents flew in from India, and we took a lot of pictures and went out to dinner to celebrate. In July of 2018, Akirt landed on my couch.

Akirt and Anush grew up in Africa. Anush was born in Rwanda in 1987 — a few years before the genocide, but in a time when things were dangerous and civil war was brewing. His mother’s ob/gyn left the country before Anush was due. Without her doctor, she had a complicated childbirth, but she and the baby — my future husband — survived.

The family left Rwanda and moved often — to Uganda, Ivory Coast, back to India, then to Kenya, where Anush went to high school before heading to India again. His father was always ambitious and driven and realized he could get higher-paying jobs in Africa than in India, so he went where the jobs were. He was the accountant for major metal extraction companies across the African continent.

Anush was alone a lot. He studied, he learned, he watched movies — and after his younger brother was born in Chennai, in southern India, in 1992, he did all of those things with him. Akirt was curious and wide-eyed. He worshipped Anush, and together, they loved learning how things worked. Anush had massive Lego sets with thousands and thousands of pieces. The brothers would build elaborate worlds to stage stories in, complete with airports with runways and planes and control towers. Akirt would hand Anush the pieces he needed. And they watched movie after movie: science fiction, fantasy, documentaries.

“I watched a documentary one time where a robot went to a dangerous place and disassembled a bomb,” Anush once told me. “It was amazing. I thought, what if you build a robot that could go to faraway places where they don’t have good access to technology or doctors, but then the robot could treat patients … ”

Patients like his mother, who had almost died in childbirth.

Anush graduated from college in India and applied to school in the U.S. to study robotics engineering. “I grew up with my dad telling us that there was nothing more important than education,” he remembers. In 2010, he found himself living in West Philadelphia and studying electrical engineering at Drexel, in a program paired with clinical ultrasound research at Jefferson. The program satisfied his desire to be in both technology and medicine, and he went on to complete his PhD in electrical and computer engineering, focusing on improving ultrasound detection of breast cancer.

Anush’s path had advantages because he stayed in academia: After graduating, he moved to the University of North Carolina as a postdoctoral researcher, under his OPT. Then he was hired as a postdoctoral researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, working on a team that’s developing the first artificial womb for premature babies. Since CHOP is a nonprofit, it was able to apply for an H-1B visa for him as a biomedical engineer, as an “uncapped applicant.” Nonprofit research institutions can typically hire as many H-1Bs as they need, to ensure they have enough highly skilled employees to be innovative.

Akirt wanted to study engineering like his brother. He had seen a movie that motivated him, too: The Pursuit of Happyness, with Will Smith, a true story about a down-on-his-luck man who goes on to found a multimillion-dollar brokerage firm. “It inspired me. Because it was about a place where it was possible for anyone to work hard and succeed.”

So when Akirt was accepted to his program at the University of Delaware, things looked good for him. Until they didn’t.

Akirt and Anush’s stories aren’t unique. International enrollment in the U.S. has grown steadily over the past decade. In 2018, there were a record-high 1.09 million international students studying here. According to a 2017 National Foundation for American Policy analysis, 81 percent of full-time graduate students in electrical and petroleum engineering in the U.S. — and 79 percent of those in computer science — are international students. “At many U.S. universities, both majors and graduate programs could not be maintained without international students,” the report concluded.

“There are more slots than there are domestic students,” agrees Robert Opila, one of Akirt’s engineering professors at the University of Delaware. “We absolutely have too few American students to fill the spots.”

U.S. immigration law has provided a way for foreign students to stay here and work after they graduate since at least the 1950s. The current mechanism — the H-1B visa — allows a highly skilled employee to live in the U.S. and work for an American employer, or “sponsor,” for up to six years. (After that, the employer can sponsor a green card, or the employee can seek employment in another country.) The visa is linked to employment, not unlike health insurance. If an employer wants to hire an international employee on an H-1B, it must file a Labor Condition Application with the U.S. Department of Labor and pay upwards of $2,000 to have the petition considered. (The fee is $1,250 for small companies.) The H-1B applications are all put into a random lottery annually; those selected are processed.

For decades, there was no limit on the number of temporary worker visas the U.S. issued. That changed with the Immigration Act of 1990, which put a cap on such visas. The cap fluctuated over the years, finally settling at 85,000 annually in 2004. The next year, as applications exceeded the cap, the government began using the lottery system.

Critics of the H-1B program have long asserted that employers use it simply to hire cheaper foreign labor. This can certainly happen. But there are protections, along with restrictions pertaining to wages — H-1B employees can’t be paid less than U.S. workers in the same positions. As with any such program, there have been instances of fraud associated with the H-1B — for example, employees performing duties significantly different from those described in their applications.

Despite its flaws, however, the H-1B program has overwhelmingly proven to be a win-win-win proposition. It has benefited students, who are able to come to the U.S. and study with strong professors, then use their educations as springboards to apply for high-paying jobs. It has benefited American universities, which get to enroll students to fill STEM slots — students who typically pay top dollar. And it has benefited U.S. companies, who have been able to hire top intellectual talent to keep their companies, and the U.S. economy, competitive with an increasingly advanced world market.

The system has worked for my fiancé, Anush — at least, so far — but almost on a technicality. Anush stayed in academia and research, fields that mercifully remain somewhat immune to the fluctuations of the U.S. visa lottery system. But when it came to Akirt — who did all the right things in school, who graduated with a dual degree, who had skills that should have set him apart in the market — the system let him fall through the cracks.

In April 2017, President Trump signed the “Buy American and hire American” executive order. It did two things: It incentivized companies to move their manufacturing processes to the U.S. (a provision that many people have criticized for being more performative than substantive), and it mandated that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services change its immigration policies to be more strict toward companies applying for H-1Bs.

“Too many American workers who are qualified, willing, and deserving to work in these fields have been ignored or unfairly disadvantaged,” the USCIS — under its new, Trump-appointed head, Lee Cissna — announced the same month. It offered no evidence to support the statement.

Under the new rules, the visa process became more unpredictable, with both denials and “requests for evidence” (which delay the process and up the cost) increasing significantly. In the fourth quarter of 2017, for example, immigration officials turned down 41 percent more highly skilled H-1B visa applicants than they had in the third quarter of that year. According to Reuters, in the first eight months of 2017, the agency issued 85,000 requests for evidence — 45 percent more than in the same period a year earlier.

trump immigration policies

After graduating in 2017, Akirt applied — unsuccessfully — for 2,000 jobs. Photograph by Justin James Muir

The moves have been met with widespread consternation and confusion. A May 2018 letter from a collection of leading physician organizations in the U.S. (which have seen visas for international medical residents affected) declared, “When incoming medical residents are delayed or visas are denied, it is not only disruptive to training programs, but it impacts patient care as teaching hospitals rely on these medical residents to provide care.” (Cissna’s reply was essentially, “Tough luck.”)

In addition to these changes, in September the USCIS changed its policy to allow officers to deny both H-1B visa and green-card applications without giving the applicants a chance to address application errors, which can range from missing paperwork to insufficient proof of the legitimacy of a job or skill. Under Obama-era policy, officers had to send notices and let applicants fix their paperwork. Under Trump, they don’t. When I asked for an explanation, USCIS spokesman Michael Bars wrote the following in an email: “The 2013 policy change under President Obama was among the many abuses of the immigration process, tying the hands of adjudicators and imposing a massive loophole for illegitimate petitioners to exploit our system. … This policy change is part of an ongoing effort to help faithfully execute and protect the integrity of our laws, cut down on frivolous applications, reduce waste, and help ensure legitimate, law abiding petitioners seeking greater safety, security and prosperity aren’t undermined by those able to game our system.”

Last August, the immigration service made other changes to its policies, targeting students who overstay their visas; those who tarry too long can be banned from the country for three to 10 years. The order ignores the fact that students are often young and distracted and commonly overstay their visas accidentally. (I was a responsible and meticulous student, but I and two other Saint Joseph’s University students did so when we interned at the U.K. Parliament in college.) Along with three other higher-education institutions, Haverford College is suing the Trump administration over the new policy. Lawyers say the school recently had to tell two students to leave the country immediately because of the changes.

“The policy is getting tighter these days, and it makes it hard for a company to hire us,” one recently graduated PhD student who wants to remain anonymous says. “One company was very determined to hire me. They tried over seven months, with multiple rounds of filing and appeals. It didn’t get approved, eventually. A lot of international students are experiencing similar problems these days, as are the tech companies, who can’t find qualified candidates.”

As if the underlying direction and purpose of these changes wasn’t clear enough, last year, under Cissna, the USCIS mission statement was rewritten with the words “a nation of immigrants” eliminated.

After graduating, Akirt began an odyssey into the byzantine American job market. He had high hopes at first, with an early lead at a financial company in Delaware. But after a second interview, the company learned he needed visa sponsorship and stopped the conversation.

“I’ve been sleeping on so many couches, they’ve just become my bed,” says Akirt. “I obviously never wanted to burden anybody, and that feeling is always in the back of my head. When you’re at someone else’s place all the time, you don’t know where home is anymore.”

He applied to more jobs. Then more jobs. He moved to San Francisco, since that’s supposed to be where the tech jobs are centered. Many companies wanted to hire him. What they didn’t want? To sponsor a visa at a time when applications are often rejected and the lottery system is a gamble.

All of this has been happening, of course, as tech companies in particular are desperate for skilled workers. Code.org calculates that there are currently more than 500,000 open computing jobs in the U.S., while the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2026, the economy will create an additional 302,000 software development jobs. Meanwhile, despite all the recent start-up hype, the trend seems to be slowing. In the mid-2000s, start-ups created an average of 3.3 million new jobs per year; in 2015, there were 100,000 fewer start-ups, and they only created 2.5 million jobs. It’s a big problem for the American economy, because new businesses are key creators of new jobs.

The start-up drain was happening before the administration stepped in, but “these policies do not make it easier, obviously,” says Karina Sotnik, director of Business Incubation and Accelerator Programs at the University City Science Center. She’s confident that foreign companies will continue to come to the U.S. to expand, but she’s worried we’re allowing top talent to slip through our fingers: “I am concerned about how we let excellent companies and excellent opportunities leave because we don’t have the right programs and policies in place to help them stay here.”

One example is Kunal Bahl, who graduated from Wharton in 2006. He had a job lined up at Microsoft here in the U.S. but couldn’t get an H-1B visa, so he gave up and went back to India. There, he started an e-commerce company, Snapdeal, that has since created thousands of jobs and received nearly $2 billion in investment.

“We missed out there,” says Sotnik. “We definitely missed out on his talent. We educate these students, we spend all this time and resources on them, and then we lose big-time.” With Trump’s new policies, more such examples will no doubt crop up.

Other countries, aware of American trends, have begun competing to poach top talent. A few years ago, Canada’s immigration agency bought a billboard in the U.S. The sign, along Route 101 in California, read, “H-1B Problems? Pivot to Canada. New Start-Up Visa. Low Taxes.”

Immigration is on the upswing in Philadelphia, to our benefit; between 2000 and 2016, it grew 69 percent, and there are now more than 47,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in the region. Indeed, in our metro area, immigrants are nearly 57 percent more likely to become entrepreneurs than native-born residents. Meanwhile, Philadelphia employers request plenty of H-1Bs — behind only New York City and Houston in 2016, according to an Inquirer analysis. (Consulting firm Deloitte filed the most; others at the top included Infosys, Accenture, Comcast, Penn, Temple and Jefferson.)

But large companies are aware of the issues and complications faced by foreign workers, and their hiring practices are changing. According to an analysis from research firm Gartner Inc. for the Wall Street Journal, job postings including language that candidates must have U.S. citizenship or work authorization from the federal government increased 19 percent from 2017 through the first half of last year. Such changes impact not just foreign-born workers, but ultimately the schools that are educating them, which are now seeing growing competition from around the world in trying to attract talent.

“Other countries are recognizing the role that international students can play,” says Jeannie D’Agostino, director of international admissions at Drexel. “There are about four million students who leave their home country for higher ed elsewhere, and we are only seeing a portion of them. They’re going other places.” D’Agostino’s right. While the U.S. is still the number one destination for international students, new enrollment has been down the past two years.

Akirt bounced from a short-term gig at a tech start-up in San Francisco, where he lived on a friend’s couch — the company said maybe it would sponsor his visa but ultimately declined — to another short-term gig across the country at a tech start-up in Atlanta, Fractal Zen, that his cousin was trying to get off the ground. Akirt learned from his dad when he was young: You go where the jobs are.

In Georgia, Akirt was paid little and worked long hours troubleshooting software as well as trying to attract investors to Fractal Zen, which offered app extensions to optimize digital marketing tools like Mailchimp and Salesforce. He stayed in a small spare room at a relative’s house in the suburbs of Atlanta. Fractal Zen applied for an H-1B visa for Akirt. His application wasn’t selected in the lottery. He applied for a STEM extension on his student visa, a two-year training option that would give him more time to apply for an H-1B. But the start-up was put on hold when Akirt’s cousin took a consulting gig in Chicago. Fractal Zen investors didn’t show up, and financial support was dwindling.

Akirt had no money coming in, no car, no reason to stay at the stymied company in Atlanta. He was applying to other jobs daily but getting no response.

“You’re in this situation where you’re doing this over and over again so many times that you wake up in the morning and you could recite your résumé to anyone if they asked you,” Akirt says. “And you can kind of take that personally, because when you are doing that so many times, is it really the system’s fault, or are you just inadequate?”

That’s when Anush realized how sad his brother sounded over the phone. That’s when we flew him to Philadelphia, where he ended up spilling to me on our back porch and then sleeping on our couch in Fairmount.

Once he’d been living with us for a few months, I asked Akirt about his acquaintance who’d killed himself.

“I didn’t know him well enough to be emotionally affected by it, but I could feel what he was going through,” Akirt said. “I mean, I’ve not felt suicidal, but I’ve definitely felt pain going through the whole process of getting denied at every job, every single time I applied. Trust me, looking at 800 letters of rejection does not feel good at all. I mean, you could get 50 rejections and be okay with it, but then after a while you think, ‘Well, I guess I’m only going to get rejected at this point.’ It’s hard. There are situations where people are backed into a corner, and they just don’t know who to talk to.”

The players invested in innovation, education, and America’s tech growth are desperately seeking solutions to the growing problem. One workaround is the nonprofit Global Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program, which works to keep top international entrepreneurs in the country by getting them university-sponsored H-1Bs. It’s currently in six states and growing.

One company benefiting from the program is RistCall, a promising Philly tech start-up (its first client was Penn Medicine) that helps make hospital bedside service more efficient. In order to keep his status as a Global EIR member and maintain a visa, RistCall’s founder, Srinath Vaddepally, has to fly once a week to UMass Boston — where he’s technically employed — to mentor student entrepreneurs.

So why aren’t Philadelphia colleges involved with the program? “It really depends on each local environment,” says Craig Montouri, executive director of the Global EIR Program. “It may take the support of a mayor, as we’ve seen in Chicago. In the case of Massachusetts — our initial program — it was the governor. On the other hand, Colorado launched based on a private-investor initiative.”

The players in Philly all seem to be enthusiastic about starting a Global EIR program, but so far, no one has raised the capital — a minimum of about $100,000 to kick the program off — or devoted the concerted effort necessary. On the phone with me, Montouri sighs. “There’s a whole generation of immigrant entrepreneurs that are waiting to be unlocked for the benefit of America and Americans,” he says, “if you just make it a little easier — if you make it a little less of an insurmountable problem.”

Many immigration bills have been introduced in Congress, but few reforms actually get passed into law. The latest effort, the bipartisan Immigration Innovation Act of 2018, was introduced in the House in September by Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois. The act — backed by tech giants like Facebook and Microsoft — includes a market escalator that would raise the number of annual H-1B visas as high as 195,000, as well as a de-escalator if demand decreases. But experts say such bills have cropped up countless times over the past decade and rarely gain traction. Meanwhile, new rules and potential changes could come from the Trump administration itself. The Department of Homeland Security released a proposal in early December that, if enacted, would increase master’s and PhD students’ share of H-1B visas. That’s a welcome change, but it wouldn’t increase the total number of visas available.

Though we may be a long way from comprehensive visa reform — and though under Trump, the USCIS has dropped that “nation of immigrants” designation — most Americans do still see the U.S. as a melting pot. We know where our grandparents came from — in my case, Ireland and Italy. And they didn’t come here all that long ago.

“It’s about tech, but it’s a bigger issue,” says Akirt’s former professor, Robert Opila. “My family came in from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. They were eighth-grade-educated. Now, in just a few generations, you have people that are high-school-educated, then college-educated, then graduate-school-educated, and we’re professors now. My family lived in Polish and Czech neighborhoods, and people used to give them grief for reading the Polish newspapers and say, ‘They’re never gonna learn English!’ It’s exactly what people say now about modern-day immigrants.”

My own ancestors arrived at the turn of the last century. My Italian great-grandfather on my father’s side was a tailor; his son was a steel welder; his son, my dad, is an attorney. My Irish great-grandfather on my mom’s side worked on the railroad, and his son, my grandfather, was a yardmaster for the railroad, too. His daughter, my mom, became a social worker. Now I’m a magazine editor with a master’s degree, writing the story you’re in the midst of reading.

The American dream has always been about the pursuit of happiness and prosperity — and, perhaps unrecognized by us, immigration has often been the greatest source of that prosperity. A whopping 43 percent of America’s 2017 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. (Among the top 35, that share is 57 percent.) These 216 companies produced $5.3 trillion in revenue and employed 12.1 million workers last year.

But with President Trump’s obsession with closing borders and expelling anyone who isn’t from “places like Norway,” the American dream — a dream of a place where people can become something great — is in danger of dying.

“I think the American dream was just that you would be able to do something, to make something of yourself,” Akirt says. “The dream was more of an idea that you would be a better version of yourself in this country than you would be in yours. I think a lot of people come here with hope. They come because they want to change what their lifestyle was before. To improve. To be able to live like those people you see in the movies.”

After more than four years in America, Akirt left the country on November 5th, the day before the midterm elections.

While he lived with us in Fairmount, he kept applying for jobs. But after a lot of discussion with us and his parents in India — and a final release of that feeling of pressure to find a job in the U.S. — he started doing so around the world.

Suddenly he had interviews with solar and tech companies in Chennai, in Singapore, in Kampala. He was getting callbacks at all hours of the night, and he was feeling like a desirable candidate again. He wasn’t dismissed from the outset because of his visa or, worse, told after several rounds of interviews that the company didn’t sponsor. His student visa was going to be expiring soon, and he decided it was best for him to go home and continue to apply from there.

On the Friday before Akirt’s flight to India, the STEM extension of his student visa, sponsored by Fractal Zen in Atlanta, came through. Ironically, he could stay and work for up to two more years while he continued to apply for his H-1B — if he moved back to Georgia. But he’d face the same problems he’d been encountering this entire time: uncertainty, constant rejection, couch-surfing. He couldn’t go back to Fractal Zen. He needed to go forward.

“Six months ago,” Akirt said, “I was pretty much just flailing. I feel much better just because I know where I’m going to be. I know I’m going to go back to India. I know I’ll work a job that is probably going to be satisfying. I just spent too much time not knowing what I was going to do or where I was going to be.”

Since graduating in May of 2017, Akirt has applied for 2,000 jobs. He and his parents have spent some $125,000 on tuition in the United States since he arrived.

Anush and I drove Akirt to the Philadelphia airport in my white Jetta. “Maybe by the time your article is published, I’ll have a job,” he said to me.

“I hope you will,” I said.

After the airport, Anush and I went home. We talked about Akirt, talked about our future. We were sad and tender, but the relief was palpable. Finally, we were able to be worried about ourselves again: Should we buy a house? When should we get married? Are we having kids? What’s going on with Anush’s job?

Akirt landed on November 7th in Chennai, a burgeoning start-up hub — the city his parents are originally from and have retired to. Their white marble high-rise apartment, whose decor features Hindu gods and goddesses, African tribal artwork, and every Apple product imaginable, sits next to a huge technological park — one that’s currently hiring Americans. Now that he was looking beyond the United States, Akirt seemed to have opportunities everywhere.

“I was restricting myself to this one country all this time,” he said. “Now, I have hundreds of countries left to explore.”

And less than two weeks after he returned, Akirt got a job at Crayon Data, a Singapore-based big data and AI start-up with a large presence in Chennai. “India has become very popular for tech start-ups. There are a lot of technology companies and software companies that are up-and-coming in Chennai,” he said.

Some of those companies are even hiring Philadelphians. In fact, just the other day, I met a friend for lunch at Front Street Cafe. We chatted about her husband, who was working remotely from their home in Fishtown. I asked where his company was based.

“It’s in South India,” she said. “I think it’s called Chennai.”

Published as “The Immigrant on My Couch” in the January 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.