Temporary business investors worry immigration bill leaves them out

April 17, 2013

(WBEZ/Odette Yousef)
Jong Sung Kang started his restaurant last year to buoy his family’s income as another of his businesses failed. Without a solid business to maintain his E-2 visa, he can’t stay in the country.

Jong Sung Kang looks like he’s been cooking all his life. At his restaurant in a nondescript Schaumburg strip mall, Kang chops refrigerated pork, washes dishes, and tosses vegetables onto a large stove with great efficiency. But in fact, Kang has only had this restaurant for eight months. It’s his second business in the U.S. -- the first was a nail salon that he and his wife opened in 2005, soon after they arrived from their native South Korea.

“The business was pretty good,” he said through a translator, “so we managed to live with no difficulty. But since the economy went down, it’s really tough.” Kang said business started slowing down about two years ago. “We couldn’t make money, so actually my wife went to a different shop to work and make some money,” he said, “and we used that money to pay our employees at our own nail salon.”

Kang says any rational businessman would have sold that salon, but he couldn’t because his family’s legal status in the US depends on maintaining his own business.

Discussion leading up to the introduction of a comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. Senate early Wednesday has largely focused on disagreements over a pathway to citizenship for people here illegally. But there’s concern over whether it’ll address those immigrants like Jong Sung Kang who are here legally, awaiting permanent status. In some cases, he and other immigrants on temporary visas have poured vast sums of personal money into the U.S. economy in the hope that eventually, they’ll be given a pathway to citizenship.

Kang’s family came to the U.S. after his sister-in-law sponsored them for a green card. He said he knew that the petition for a family reunification visa could take more than a decade to be processed. But they would be processed faster if his family were already living in the U.S., rather than waiting in South Korea. So Kang opted to bring his wife and then-five -year-old son to the U.S. on a temporary worker visa known as the E-2 Treaty Investors visa.

“Before the time comes for my [family reunification] visa I want(ed) to adjust my life into the new situation, so that’s why i chose the E-2 visa,” Kang said.

The U.S. issued about 30,000 E-2 visas last year, almost 45 percent of which went to foreigners from Asian countries. It’s a two-year, temporary visa for people from any of the eighty countries with which the U.S. has commerce and navigation treaties. It requires the visa holder to put substantial personal savings into a business. As long as they keep the business going, they can renew their E-2 visas indefinitely.

Kang estimates he poured about $300,000 into maintaining his legal status here: half of it to open the nail salon; $80,000 to open the restaurant; $17,000 to acquire and renew the E-2 visa; and additional money just for day-to-day survival. He said his considerable savings came from selling his home in Seoul, South Korea.

Like many other immigrants who are sponsored by their family members, Kang doesn’t know how much longer he’ll have to keep throwing money into this pit, because he doesn’t know when his green card will come: it could be years. Still, he says he doesn’t regret his decision to come to the U.S.

“It’s not easy to live here, but I (would) still like to live here,” he said. “The U.S. has a better education system, better environment. So, you know, I would like to stay here.” But some wonder whether the U.S. is doing itself a disservice by allowing these temporary investors to tread water indefinitely.

“I think the E-2 visa is a good example of a true entrepreneurial visa,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration lawyer and professor at Cornell Law School.  “We should try to make it easier for people who want to do that to come to the United States more easily in the future, and to be able to get a permanent green card.”

An outline of the immigration bill does propose easing the way for entrepreneurs, but Yale-Loehr says lawmakers often only think about people in high-tech industries rather than the owners of nail salons or restaurants, like Kang.

“We spent tons of money to keep our status,” said Kang. “Right now people are talking about immigration reform and people are talking about a pathway to citizenship. I understand that, but also there should be a way to support people like me waiting in line for (a) decade.” At the very least, Kang hopes a new bill won’t make things any harder for his family.

In the meantime, he says he’ll keep trying to turn a profit and renew his E-2 visa until he gets a green card.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau Reporter. Follow her at @oyousef.