Don’t wait, self deport
Khaled Altarkeet is so frustrated, he is “self-deporting.”
After an immigration quagmire left his business visa in limbo, the owner of a popular cafe across from San Jose State University has closed his business, let go his half dozen employees, donated the leftover food to Catholic Charities and, on Wednesday, will board a plane with his wife and four children to fly back to his home country of Kuwait.
“I’m shutting the business and forgetting the United States,” said Altarkeet, sitting for the last time in the empty cafe with the chairs stacked on the tables last week. “I will find another country that is more accepting and willing to take my investments, since this place doesn’t want us.”
While much of the attention on immigration issues has centered on the Trump administration’s hard line on illegal immigrants and the proposed border wall with Mexico, the crackdown also is extending into business visas, the H-1B visas that attract engineers mostly from India, and now the L1 visa that allowed Altarkeet to move his family here.
President Trump’s supporters say the tougher scrutiny to end visa abuses that cheat American workers is long overdue. But immigration advocates and attorneys say Altarkeet’s experience defines how local workers and businesses suffer when the welcome mat is yanked from America’s front door.
In 2016, he bought the Pomegranate Cafe in downtown San Jose and took over the Relish Gastro Lounge in Saratoga before converting it to “The Space” that was nearly ready to open as a breakfast and lunch cafe on Big Basin Way. His L1 nonimmigrant business visa was valid for one year, but his request for an extension in October was denied on the grounds that he didn’t prove he was a manager or executive of the restaurants for which he’s invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. He formally filed for “reconsideration” and obtained a tourist visa while he waited.
“Normally, for a visa extension, we do it in our sleep,” said Altarkeet’s lawyer, Steven Riznyk, who has practiced immigration law for 30 years and said he’s never seen such an arbitrary and misguided denial. His client, he says, is not alone, and he fears a chilling effect on foreign investment here and damage to the reputation of the U.S.
“We don’t have problems with extensions. All of a sudden, lawyers are calling me, asking, ‘What the heck is going on?’ Everyone is getting these crazy decisions and don’t know what to do with it,” said Riznyk, whose practice is in San Diego. “You question how is this possible? If Khaled’s case isn’t good enough, then whose is?”
The purpose of reviewing an L1 visa after one year is to ensure that the visa holder is fulfilling his promise of investing and running businesses, he said.
Sharon Rummery, the spokeswoman for the Northern California office of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, said Monday she was unable to comment on the issues facing the business visas. While the numbers of H-1B visas issued each year are capped, L1 visas are not, and some reports show about 65,000 to 75,000 have been issued across the country in recent years.
Critics say the L1 visa wasn’t designed as an invitation for foreigners to take up residence in the United States to start mom-and-pop businesses.
But Altarkeet’s supporters say that’s not what he’s doing. They call him a textbook example of the merit-based system Trump has touted: to attract immigrants willing to invest in the American economy and hire workers.
He owns a successful lumber business in Kuwait but wanted to return with his family to the country where he studied civil engineering in the 1990s. He’s invested in two businesses over the past 18 months, paid taxes and Social Security. His wife is trained as a medical doctor but has been home now raising the children and seeing them off each day to their Cupertino schools.
“I’d adopt them if I could get them all to stay,” said Altarkeet’s local accountant, Kristine Michael, who joined the couple at the shuttered Pomegranate Cafe last week. “They’re absolutely people you want in the United States. They’re not coming here to be dependent on taxpayer dollars. They’re providing services. They’re not going to come in and suck the life out of taxpayers. If there is merit-based immigration, these guys would be a shoo-in.”
Jaime Angulo is a frequent patron of Cafe Pomegranate. He said he is heartbroken it is closing and that Altarkeet and his family are leaving.
“This is a community institution, not only for the neighborhood but for San Jose State and City Hall,” Angulo said of the cafe on East San Fernando Street.
Immigration lawyers trace the heightened scrutiny on the L1 visas to President Trump’s signing of a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order last year.
“The law is fine. It’s the implementation that’s becoming worse,” said Hemant Habbu, a San Jose immigration lawyer.
While some of the immigration examiners make solid judgments, Habbu said, others “seem to have an agenda. Even when you have all the items in place and can prove it, they come up with the most flimsy reasons to deny it. The Trump administration makes it more conducive for these kinds of arbitrary decisions.”
Jason Feldman, a San Diego immigration lawyer, says the past year has been “a nightmare” for L1 visas and believes racism is partially to blame at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“It’s much harder to get one for someone from Africa or Asia than someone in Europe,” Feldman said. “The Middle East falls into that group of people I imagine they’re trying to keep out. There’s a general mindset of, ‘Is there any way to deny this?’ ”
Altarkeet has run out of patience — and he said a four-hour interrogation at the San Francisco International Airport earlier this month didn’t help. Immigration officials wouldn’t discuss his case, but Altarkeet said his tourist visa was reduced from six months to one. Without any encouragement that his L1 business visa extension would come through, the family decided to pack up and leave.
To his lawyer, the situation is a disgrace.
“Think about what a kick in the face this is,” Riznyk said. “First we approve you, you spend all your money, then we don’t approve you and we give you a month to sell off all your assets. Oh my God, I’m speechless.”
Altarkeet’s wife, Heba Alshbaili, feels betrayed.
“We moved here with the kids. We bought a car, registered our kids for school, rented a place, bought furniture, everything for a new life here,” based on the business visa Alshbaili said. “I made friends and neighbors and all of that.”
On Wednesday, they will say goodbye. Altarkeet said he would prefer not to dwell on what he feels are the signs of a country that no longer welcomes him. But recently while returning from the Saratoga restaurant, which he had just remodeled and was interviewing chefs, he noticed the sticker on a stop sign at the entrance to Highway 85: “Build the Wall. Deport them all.”
“I didn’t believe it,” Altarkeet said. “I said that’s it. So fine, we are deporting ourselves.”
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