In 2009, Tahmina Watson founded Watson Immigration Law, a Seattle-based firm that provides immigration-related advice to, amongst others, startups. A former barrister in the UK, Tahmina moved to the US in 2005, and has donned a number of hats since then including that of an author, a talk-show host, and even a wildlife photographer.
In this interview, I get her to discuss her latest book, The Startup Visa: U.S. Immigration Visa Guide for Startups and Founders, her own journey as a lawyer, and a whole lot more.
I will come to immigration law in a bit, but just a little bit about you first – what got you to study law in the UK?
I was born and raised, for the most part, in London, UK to British-Bangladeshi parents. My father was a lawyer, as was my maternal grandfather and several other family members. I was inspired by the family and my mother’s support to become a lawyer too.
After relocating to the US in 2005, why did you choose to focus on immigration and naturalization law? Were there any specific instances that helped you realize that this was a field you could focus on?
At first, I was resistant to practicing US immigration law. I did not know it could be broad and impactful in business and the economy. However, I had first-hand experience with US immigration law when I moved to the United States to be with my husband.
So, I understood how important this area of law is for individuals and businesses. When I first started my practice, the US was in the midst of the 2008-2009 recession and many of my clients had been laid off. A disproportionate number of those laid off then were Indian citizens.
With each client that I was able to help, I realized the difference I was making in their lives.
The layoffs also helped me focus on the concept of a startup visa, which eventually led to writing several books and numerous articles on this subject.
Nearly two decades later, what have been some of the bigger “wins” in your journey as an immigration lawyer?
I have been lucky to have the privilege of serving thousands of people at this point in my career. It would be hard to list all of the wins. My books are definitely among the top highlights, especially my latest work, The Startup Visa: U.S. Immigration Visa Guide for Startups and Founders, which is a guide book on US visas. It was also recently translated into Spanish.
These will be my part of my legacy after I’m long gone.
Other highlights include each of my startup clients who have made an impact in their own industries, serving the economy and achieving their own personal American dreams. Many of my clients have become my friends. I love all of my advocacy work especially on the need to create a special visa for startup founders.
And finally, the lasting impact on each and every one of my client’s lives will be felt for generations to come. I live in gratitude for the rewarding work I do.
When it comes to immigration to the US, are there any first principles so to speak that you wish more applicants were aware of? Any mistakes that you see being repeated time and again?
One of the reasons I wrote my latest visa guidebook was exactly for this: to clear up myths and misconceptions about the US immigration process. For instance, many people, including those who have gone through the process, have the misconception that H-1B visas are the only work visas available.
Additionally, some people who already are here on H-1B visas are under the mistaken belief that they can’t launch their own startup company under their current visa. Another myth is that the EB-5 visa is the only way to obtain a green card in the US. There are many different misconceptions and I want to dispel them.
The biggest mistake is not to seek expert legal guidance when you create a solid plan for yourself – both for the short term and the long term.
One the fundamental tenets you refer to in your recent book is to have a strategy in place – how early do you think one should start planning this out?
You should set your strategy before you enter the US, if possible. Having a general idea of what you want to do in the US and how long you might want to stay will help guide your strategy. But I know that sometimes, getting your foot in the door is the biggest concern for people.
So, the next best thing is to ensure you have a plan in place at your earliest convenience. For example, if you are an international student, don’t wait until the year you graduate to have a plan to stay in the country.
Open-ended question here, but how do you think US immigration policies will change in the near future?
Having advocated for immigration reform for almost two decades, I am now resigning myself to the fact that immigration reform through Congress is unlikely to happen any time soon. This is a huge problem for the US because without reform, millions of lives are in limbo.
For Indian and Chinese citizens, green cards can take several decades to become a reality.
I write about various scenarios for why we need immigration reform in my Above the Law column and in my latest book. International student numbers are down, and other countries are actively creating pathways to lure high-skilled immigrant workers to their countries.
If we don’t act now, it will be too late.
For my children’s future, I want to see a prosperous country. And therefore, I circle back to my visa guidebook; it is my personal effort to demonstrate how talented, innovative people can still find a pathway to make their American dreams come true – in America.
Lastly, any words of advice to those who are trying to immigrate but find the laws and procedures quite intimidating?
Read my book! This book is not just for founders, it is for anyone who wants to understand the possible immigration avenues open to them without the legal language. The book demystifies the law.