Local entrepreneur gets no help

Are any of our current elected officials really “focusing like a laser” on helping local entrepreneurs “create new jobs” in Las Vegas?

Ask Raj Patel.

Raj Patel owns the City Center motel downtown, near the El Cortez. He’d like to create more jobs with an Indian restaurant, there. He’s also developed a two-story strip mall at Craig Road and Tenaya, out in the northwest suburbs, not far from the Santa Fe Station.

Raj Patel has invested more than $4 million in Las Vegas. But if your image of a “millionaire businessman” is some fat guy puffing a cigar, you’d be shocked to walk into the Saffron Restaurant at Craig and Tenaya and ask the bartender for Mr. Patel. Because the young guy tending bar and managing the restaurant IS Raj Patel. The dentist with the offices upstairs? That’s his wife.

While vacationing in the Bahamas a few years back, Raj ate some Indian food at The Clay Oven, the restaurant at a local motel. He was wowed by the quality, and arranged to meet the chef, Tilak Raj, no relation.

Raj Patel tells a story about a diner getting off a transcontinental flight with “go” container from New York containing a dish he wished someone could make for him, a kind of chutney. He says Tilak Raj tasted the dish, went out into the kitchen, and matched it. No recipe, no list of ingredients. Just by taste. The traveler said Tilak’s was better.

“My dream was to do this restaurant with Tilak,” Raj says.

Tilak Raj had a U.S. visitor visa, good through 2018. He visited the Patels here, advising them on their menu and helping devise their recipes for the restaurant that was to become “Saffron Flavors of India,” though on his visitor’s visa the chef couldn’t actually cook in this country.

Now, if you know anything about ethnic restaurants in America today, you know that many, many of them have chefs and other kitchen workers to whom immigration lawyers politely refer as “out of status.” It’s a nice way of saying they may have entered the country on one kind of visa or another, but they didn’t go home when they were supposed to.

Raj Patel could probably have arranged for Tilak Raj to stay here illegally. He says he’s met Indian chefs in California who have been here for decades, illegally, raising children with “birthright” U.S. citizenship.

“They’re all just waiting for the next big amnesty,” Raj says. But “I didn’t want to do it that way. We wanted to be on the up-and-up, we wanted to do everything legally. My sister works for the U.S. government. You can imagine the kind of security check we went through when she got that job — I mean the whole family. I wouldn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize her career, her chances for advancement.”

So there was no question of having Tilak overstay his U.S. visitor visa. The chef went home to India about a year ago. Raj hired a local immigration attorney — Andrew Driggs — and started the time consuming process of getting a pair of one-year work visas approved for his master chef, Tilak Raj, and a second Indian chef, Anand Singh Rana.

Raj Patel’s long-term goal? In the course of a year, he figured the two men could get his restaurant up and running, lunch and dinner, training young chefs who could stay on permanently. Raj talked his brother-in-law, an engineering student, into dropping out of school and serving as temporary chef, using Tilak’s recipes, till the real chef could come to work legally.

Saffron is open for dinner only, now, six days a week. Even with its chefs still 12,000 miles away, it’s set a new standard, locally, for fine Indian cuisine made with quality ingredients and fresh spices. Once his two Indian chefs arrive, Raj Patel hopes to open a Thai restaurant next door to Saffron (the cuisines are related), and the subsidiary branch downtown, creating 16 to 20 new jobs for Las Vegans.

To accomplish that, first he had to get the U.S. Department of Labor to certify that no one in this country was available to do the job, at a salary they set. (The federal government instructed Raj he will pay $4,100 per month for these jobs, which they determined to be “the prevailing wage.”)

H-1B visas — the kind Microsoft gets for computer engineers — were out of the question, since the two men don’t have official “Culinary degrees” and thus supposedly “aren’t professionals.” Raj had to shoot for H-2s, which are more like those issued for seasonal farm laborers.

At first, Labor Department staffers “acted as though I could hire someone off the street,” Mr. Patel explains. “I had to explain to them this isn’t like hiring a trainee chef at McDonald’s, or even the Olive Garden, where some master chef at corporate level hands them the recipes all written out and they just learn them by rote. This is an art.”

The Labor Department required Raj to advertise nationally. He traveled to Yuba City, California, to interview some Indian chefs.

But he didn’t like them, or their cooking. And they didn’t want to move here, anyway. “Frankly, they’re out-of-status, and they’ve got a good thing in California,” where there’s essentially no immigration enforcement, Raj says. “They didn’t want to take the chance of moving here.”

‘REJECTED’

Finally, the Labor Department signed off, agreeing the restaurant plan couldn’t function without the two Indian chefs. Next, Raj and his attorney managed to get the H-2 visas approved by the appropriate branch of Homeland Security — that being the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service.

That brings us up to last month — April, 2012. Raj’s brother-in-law the engineering student has by now been pulling down kitchen duties at Saffron on a “temporary” basis for six months. Despite the Great recession, Raj Patel is now ready to start hiring, opening two new restaurants. He’s already spent $10,000 just arranging for the two work visas. All the two Indian chefs have to do is visit the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and get the State Department to OK their visas — the final step.

On April 19, the men visited the embassy for their separate 10-minute interviews. They weren’t allowed to bring any legal counsel. The interviews are in English, though the men would doubtless have been more comfortable speaking Hindi.

And they were both summarily rejected, Anand Singh Rana because the embassy clerks said he had not shown “strong enough economic and social ties” to India to guarantee he would come back when his visa ran out; Tilak Raj because the clerk said his current photo doesn’t look enough like his 1992 photo on an earlier passport (when he wore a thin mustache), and because one of his identity documents had been issued years ago with his name misspelled “Tikal” — though the following page has a correction of that error stamped with an official Indian government seal.

That’s it. No appeal. The two men can’t come here because of decisions made by low-level embassy clerks in New Delhi. Raj Patel’s plans to invest millions creating dozens of new jobs in Las Vegas are dead in the water.

And how have our local politicians reacted?

The lady Raj Patel went to see in Sen. Harry Reid’s office, Christina Martinez, has never gotten back to him.

Congressman Joe Heck’s office won’t help because Raj Patel already contacted Sen. Dean Heller.

In Sen. Dean Heller’s office, a local staffer named Mike Mendenhall has been following developments and keeping Raj updated. But Raj’s pleas for a meeting with the senator, or to have Sen. Heller actually pick up the phone and call someone at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, have brought no response.

I tried to reach Mike Mendenhall; the receptionist at Sen. Heller’s Las Vegas office wouldn’t even put my call through. I was allowed to speak only to Sen. Heller’s press guy in Washington, Stewart Bybee, who declined to discuss any details due to “confidentiality” but kept repeating the whole process is “very complicated, very convoluted.”

The Patels are now trying Congresswoman Shelley Berkley.

I called immigration lawyer Allen E. Kaye in New York, the guy who literally wrote the book on getting visas from India — lead author of the Indian chapter of an immigration lawyer’s manual called “The Visa Processing Guide and Consular Posts Handbook.”

He said the two chefs were essentially doomed when they walked in the door.

“You’re literally presumed guilty till proven innocent,” Kaye explains. “There’s a presumption that you intend to immigrate, that you’re committing fraud and you don’t intend to go home. The burden of proof is on the applicant to overcome that presumption. They can always reapply, but there’s no sense doing that unless something changes, unless they can present some compelling evidence that they’ll go home, or unless someone exerts some political muscle.”

“I don’t know how much more of a social tie to India they can show,” says Raj Patel. “They both have homes there, wives, houses, children.”

And the last option?

“Receiving inquiries from staff members won’t do it,” says attorney Kaye. “If the embassy personnel pick up the phone and the congressman or the senator is actually ion the phone, expressing an interest in the matter, that will get some attention.”

I told Stewart Bybee I’d love to write up a “story with a happy ending,” if Sen. Heller could see his way clear to pick up the phone and ask why these men who have tried to do everything legally, everything by the book, aren’t allowed to come here.

“It’s so disappointing, after they jump through all the hoops with immigration, only to have them rejected by the State Department,” says Raj Patel’s immigration attorney, Andrew Driggs.

Was he surprised?

“Yes. I’ve done H-2 visas that were turned down before, but this was two people well established in their careers. Here are two people who have been here and returned to India. That shows ties to the home country. … And then Tilak had a visitor visa which was valid through 2018 and they canceled that as well, just to stick the knife in a little more. It’s so arbitrary.”

Why weren’t the two men better prepared?

The embassy personnel in New Delhi “say we don’t have time to look at everybody’s documents,” attorney Driggs adds. “So they did have documents there relating to their families, to their homes, and to their work outside of India.” The embassy clerks “almost never look at their documents. … It’s so disconcerting to try to deal with consulates. There is no appeal right. You can reapply, but unless we can bring some pressure to bear the decision is not going to be any different.”

“A WAR ON LEGAL IMMIGRATION’

So it’s really just “who you know”? The only thing that can help is if some congressman or senator calls — something they’re only likely to do for some big campaign donor?

“Yeah. We’ve been trying to get that help for some time,” says Driggs the attorney. “There’s a fellow from Heller’s office. They have just been getting us information rather than providing us help, which it’s really not.”

And the current administration is doing nothing to help a legitimate businessmen bring in a catalyst like these two chefs, the personnel the Patels need to help create more jobs right here in America?

“Oh no,” says attorney Driggs. “They’re doing everything they can to either slow it down or frustrate it. … The California service center has been really horrible on all sorts of business-related immigration, it’s almost like they’re waging a war on LEGAL immigration. They’re issuing very lengthy, what they call ‘Requests for Evidence’ out of the California service center, it’s very frustrating. I’ve done a number of H-1B visas in the past year and it’s been so difficult, the only one that sailed through without a ‘request for evidence’ was for an economist for the Public Utilities Commission. …

“So at this point you have Microsoft building a big campus in Canada because they couldn’t get in engineers (who) they pay $80,000 a year, they’ve got to keep them in Canada, doing the work there.”

“Focusing like a laser” on creating jobs here in America? It doesn’t look that way to Raj Patel, who’d like to open a couple more restaurants here, at Ground Zero of the Great Recession, hiring 16 or 20 more out-of-work Americans, right now.

“I don’t think any of these politicians really cares,” says Raj Patel. “They talk a good game about wanting to create jobs when they’re in front of the cameras, but I haven’t seen that sense of urgency from any of them. I have asked and asked for a personal meeting with the senators, but I’m just not big enough. If I was a franchise operation with 10 restaurants, maybe, But I ask for help and I just end up back in the same place in the sand trap.”

It’s an election year. They all say they feel for the little guy and they’re trying to help the private sector create jobs. But Raj Patel can’t even get one of our politicians to pick up the phone and make a phone call.

3 Comments to “Local entrepreneur gets no help”

  1. liberranter Says:

    “So at this point you have Microsoft building a big campus in Canada because they couldn’t get in engineers (who) they pay $80,000 a year, they’ve got to keep them in Canada, doing the work there.”

    Ah, yes, Micro$$$, the new bastion of techno-crony-capitalism. Of course they would NEVER consider the tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of fully qualified and experienced AMERICAN engineers looking for work, would they?

    This is one of the many reasons why I’m a Linux guy…

    As for Raj Patel, he’s learned a very expensive and painful lesson on the futility of trying to play by the system’s rules and hoping to get anywhere by doing so.

    Two words, Raj: “Underground economy”

  2. Steve Says:

    Hope this article goes national. The situation you’ve described is a disgrace.

  3. Vin Suprynowicz » Blog Archive » Entrepreneur gets a little help Says:

    […] My May 10 essay described the frustrations of Las Vegas entrepreneur Raj Patel in trying to “do it by the book” and bring two Indian chefs here to help him expand his restaurant enterprises in Las Vegas. […]

Comment:

RSS 2.0" title="Subscribe to this posts comments via RSS 2.0">RSS subscribe