Why you should care
Because these startups are unlikely players in the larger national debate on immigration.
Growing up on the East Coast, Romish Badani was never lonely, yet he was also constantly aware of the unpredictability that marked family reunions that often hinged on a visa officer’s discretion.
His house was filled with a nonstop stream of cousins and aunts from India, many staying for months at a time. His parents sponsored his relatives’ visas, but it didn’t always go as planned. “There was always stress and anxiety about their visas,” he says. “It was a black box — ‘I’ve done everything I’m supposed to and I’m still worried.’ It had a big impact on the family.”
Those memories would return, years later, to shape his plans to pivot his startup from an online marketplace to something more meaningful. Bridge.US organizes the immigration process from the company side, making it easier for businesses to hire foreign workers; it’s been called TurboTax for immigration. And it’s only one of a series of immigration-related startups that have either taken shape over the past year or have seen growth in their work like never before, amid the greatest churn that America has seen in decades on who to welcome and who to bar.
The immigration debate is particularly vital for Silicon Valley, where 37 percent of the population are immigrants and 18 percent of all Fortune 500 companies are started by immigrants. The visa process has long been time-consuming, expensive and complicated — conditions startup innovators feed on.
With the travel ban, rhetoric got closer to policy and caused alarm. Our job was to separate fact from fiction.
Romish Badani, Bridge.US
But the heated political climate that accompanied the 2016 presidential election, the travel restrictions imposed subsequently by President Donald Trump and a review of foreign worker visas currently underway have combined to spawn growth in a wave of fresh startups catering to a burgeoning market of immigrants and companies seeking help. Some startups, like Simple Citizen and Boundless, are building a streamlined interface. Others, like Visabot, offer artificial intelligence immigration chatbots. And PrimaFacie has built a customer relationship management system for immigration. Not all of these firms came up after the 2016 elections. But even those that predated the elections, like Bridge, which launched in 2012, are handling greater challenges than before. Badani cites a huge increase in requests for evidence (RFEs) from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) that processes visa applications.
“With the travel ban, rhetoric got closer to policy and caused alarm,” says Badani. “Our job was to separate fact from fiction.”
The new breed of immigration startup caters to a range of demands from companies and individuals. Visabot, a smart chatbot that launched in July 2017 with the tagline “Immigration attorney 2.0,” is designed to quickly take people through the immigration process and paperwork for $149. Whereas an immigration attorney might take months to complete and file paperwork, Visabot normally takes between 30 minutes and two hours at 10 percent of the cost, says co-founder Andrey Zinoviev.
Visabot’s big focus is on marriage-based green cards, but H1B work visas are in its 2019 road map — it’s had 105,000 users so far. “[Our launch slogan] was ‘We help make immigrants make America great again,’” Zinoviev says. “We genuinely thought the slogan would be gone after Election Day, but it has never been more relevant than now.”
The bureaucracy and inefficiencies in the immigration system offer opportunities for startups — but also challenges. For Badani, the immigration space is ripe for disruption. “It’s a series of rules and logic established by the government,” he says, explaining that other areas of law can be complex, but visas generally follow a straightforward timeline, an opportunity for technology to iterate. That isn’t always true though, he recognizes. E-filing isn’t often available for visas, meaning lawyers still need to print, sign and mail paper copies of everything. “The USCIS makes the IRS look good!” he says.
For those who offer workable solutions, there’s plenty of money to be made too. These startups are, after all, business entities and have found a huge supply of customers eager to adopt their services. In October, Catalyst Investors led a $21 million Series C round for Envoy Global, a company that helps employers hire immigrants. Borderwise, a Philadelphia-based startup launched in late 2016, is on track to make $2.2 million by the end of 2017 for its green card service, which connects aspiring immigrants to lawyers for $500 (fees are waived for low-income applicants). Startup aggregator Angel List counts 108 immigration startups, most of them started in the past two years.
Improving technology and declining costs of development are helping such companies emerge, suggests Reid Trautz, a director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, via email. But he warns that startups aren’t one-stop shops, and as Trump’s policies go into effect, many won’t be able to address the complex cases of immigrants. “Consumers of immigration legal services are wanting the human touch during this time of immigration policy upheaval,” he says. “The software doesn’t think like a human and cannot yet be programmed to consider all possible circumstances of each unique person.”
This may be true, but that doesn’t mean technology doesn’t have a place — and it’s also a springboard for change. “This is a high-stakes and emotional process for people,” Badani says. “The [news] is a spotlight as people are starting to realize how inefficient this is — we’re in the first inning of a long game.”