Each year, tens of thousands of Indian students head to the U.S. in order to get a college degree, find a job and pursue the American Dream.
But as India’s economy booms and the U.S. continues to tighten its immigration policies, many of these young Indian professionals are making their way back home instead.
Natasha Jain, 28, is one of them.
Originally from Ambala in Northern India, she graduated with a master’s degree from Stanford University in 2012, landed a good-paying job in Silicon Valley and even started her own company. But she struggled with the constraints of the U.S. visa system and eventually gave it all up.
“Within just three years of moving back [to India], I have been able to establish a tech startup and manufacturing business and create many job opportunities,” said Jain. “All of this would have been harder for me to do as a foreigner living in the U.S.”
India’s fast-growing $2 trillion economy means there are more opportunities for Indians like Jain to find work or start their own ventures. The Indian government, too, is aggressively courting non-resident Indians with programs such as Startup India, designed to ease bureaucratic restrictions and provide funding.
But there’s also an undercurrent of nervousness and anxiety that is spurring more Indian expatriates to return home as well.
“The Trump administration is pursuing more stringent immigration policies, which could make it much harder for us to stay in America,” said Mani Karthik, 36, who worked at a technology consulting firm in Silicon Valley before returning to India earlier this year.
Karthik pointed to the RAISE Act, which President Trump endorsed earlier this month. The proposed bill seeks to cut legal immigration to the U.S. by 50% within a decade. “These policies send a message that rules are going to be stricter and tougher,” he said.
Many Indians have also grown concerned about increasing violence against foreign born workers, he added. Earlier this year, two Indian-American engineers were shot, and one of them killed in Olathe, Kansas in an incident law enforcement investigated as an alleged hate crime.
“Unfortunate hate crimes against Indians… have shocked me. They’ve shocked a lot of us,” Karthik said. “I started to think maybe this isn’t the right time for me to stay in the U.S.,” he said.
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Karthik came to the U.S. in 2010 on an H-1B visa sponsored by a telecommunications company, where he did consulting work for some of the biggest firms in Silicon Valley. Later, another employer sponsored him for a green card, which would have given him permanent legal residency status.
“I was maybe two years away from getting it,” he said.
Karthik wanted to stay. “But I made a big U-turn,” he said. “There’s so much uncertainty here now about immigration and attitudes toward immigrants. I wasn’t happy.”
While he was preparing to leave the U.S. Karthik launched ReturntoIndiakit.com, which features a checklist of helpful content about how to wind down life in America and start anew in India. The site explains things like how to sell your house and car, apply for an Indian version of a Social Security card and how to pick the fastest Internet service in India.
Since its launch in March, the site has had close to 700,000 visits, Karthik said.
Karthik knows of five people who have used the site and relocated to India. “Five or 10 years ago, none of these conversations would be taking place about going back to India, ” he said.
Karthik arrived in India in May and he’s already gearing up to launch an online publishing startup. “I’ll have it registered by the end of the month,” he said.
“Reverse brain drain”
When it comes to student visas in the U.S., India ranks second only to China, accounting for every sixth international student studying in the U.S., according to the State Department. In 2016, the U.S. issued more than 62,000 student visas to Indian nationals — that’s nearly two and half times the number of student visas it issued to Indians in 2011.
Over the past couple of decades, India lost much of its young professional talent to the U.S., said Devesh Kapur, professor of political science at University of Pennsylvania.
While exact numbers are hard to come by, Kapur said anecdotal evidence indicates that a growing number of graduates are now returning to India after gaining a few years of experience in America. “It’s not huge but it is noticeably picking up,” said Kapur.
“On average, Indians have to wait at least 10 years to get a green card if they want to transition to it from an H-1B,” he said. “That’s a long time to put your life on hold. And who know if policies can keep changing in the interim.”
After graduating from Stanford with a graduate degree in management science and engineering in 2012, Jain landed a full-time job as a supply chain manager at a medical devices firm on an H-1B work visa. She also had a side business, a startup called Freshmentors, that she had worked on with classmates while at Stanford.
But juggling her new job and launching the business — a fee-based online college mentoring platform to help international students through the process of applying to U.S. colleges — proved more challenging than she expected.
Her visa status presented the biggest hurdle.
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“As an H-1B employee with one company, I can’t also be employed by another company and earn money at the second company,” she said. “I can have equity in my business and be a shareholder but can’t earn a salary.”
Jain decided she wanted to be her own boss.
So she shut down Freshmentors and returned to India in 2014, armed with a business plan for another startup: Ruplee, a mobile payment app.
She built the platform, found retail partners and amassed users. Two years later, Ruplee was acquired. “By then, we had one million users and 1,500 merchants using it,” Jain said.
Jain is now on her third startup, Bent Chair, an online furniture and home decor business she co-launched with her father in 2016. It employs 100 people, half of them artisans and designers. The startup has logged more than $1 million in sales and she is looking to expand both in India and internationally.
“The trend of reverse brain drain is increasing,” said Jain. “Given the excessive visa restrictions, a lot of people are choosing to move back.”
“Also, coming back to India with everything you have learned in the U.S. always gives you a great advantage,” she said.