In late November, Saba Mohebpour arrived in Los Angeles from his home in Canada on a temporary visa. He was there as the CEO and co-founder of Spocket, a wholesale e-commerce startup, and was applying for startup accelerator programs with his five-person team.
A few days later, the team flew back to Vancouver, B.C., its hometown, and good news was around the corner: In December, Spocket was accepted into the Techstars Seattle program — a major break that would give the fledgling company access to mentoring, expertise and investors.
But Mohebpour wouldn’t be joining his team in Seattle. In the few weeks between his trip to Los Angeles and the start of the Techstars program, the U.S. Supreme Court let President Donald Trump’s travel ban go into effect, preventing people from certain countries, most of them majority Muslim, from entering the U.S. The ban meant Mohebpour’s visa to enter the country was denied. He is still waiting to hear back about a waiver almost two months after applying and more than two weeks after the rest of his team arrived in Seattle for the program.
Mohebpour has lived in Canada for more than five years and has been cleared for visas in the past. He has no criminal record. But he is an Iranian citizen, one of the countries included in the travel ban list. Still, he went to the U.S. consulate in Vancouver on Dec. 27 to apply for a visa, with a three-page letter of support from Techstars.
“And the same person that interviewed me a couple of months ago interviewed me,” Mohebpour said. “He told me: ‘I have to reject your visa because of these new rules.’”
The official did say he would send Mohebpour’s application for “advanced processing,” which might give him the chance of having his visa approved.
The current immigration restrictions, which are the third iteration of President Trump’s travel ban, prevent citizens of six majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S., in addition to preventing travel and immigration by North Korean citizens and travel by some Venezuelan citizens. Versions of the ban have been working their way through the courts since the first iteration was announced more than a year ago. The Supreme Court has allowed the ban to go into effect pending its own ruling.
However, the ban does allow affected people to apply for waivers in certain circumstances, including business trips to the U.S.
A few days after his trip to the consul, Mohebpour sent the U.S. government his social media accounts, a list of his siblings’ names and more personal information in an attempt to get such a waiver. He still hasn’t heard anything back, almost two months after applying.
“I have literally no hope that they’re going to give me any result,” Mohebpour said. He said the official told him there is no deadline that the U.S. must meet in processing his application, so it may be years before he hears back.
Tahmina Watson, a Seattle-based immigration lawyer, said Mohebpour isn’t alone. She said there’s no set format for people to apply for waivers and that many applicants still can’t enter the country.
“There is no consistency in how the applications are being processed at embassies. Most are being denied, if people are allowed to submit them in the first place,” Watson said via email.
While Mohebpour waits, he’s leading his team remotely. He video chats and calls the five other members of his team, including co-founder Tom Hansen, and is able to speak with mentors, investors and advisers in the program from Vancouver.
But he says not being allowed to enter the country is still a huge disadvantage. He’s missing a chance to rub elbows with other founders and CEOs and to build a rapport with potential investors and mentors. It’s also taking a toll on the Spocket team to be working across two cities and countries.
Apart from that, Mohebpour also says the U.S. is missing out on a potential opportunity. “Even if our company becomes successful, that’s damage to the U.S. economy because the investors couldn’t invest in us and their money could be tripled or 10 times more,” he said.
The Spocket team has already raised $750,000 in pre-seed money for their product, an e-commerce site where wholesalers can find products to drop ship to their customers.
“Immigrants are a huge driving force behind the U.S. economy at every level, and we all lose when talented people from any background are prevented from entering the country and putting their skills and energy to work,” said Chris Devore, Techstars Seattle managing director, in an email. “We’re doing our best to not let a short-term aberration in our national immigration policy prevent Saba from building a big valuable business that will have a positive impact in the world, and in the U.S., and we fully expect our national elected leadership to recognize that and restore more immigration-friendly policies in the longer term.”
The irony of Mohebpour’s story is that this isn’t the first time he’s had opportunity taken away because of his identity. His family adheres to the Bahá’í faith, a religion that split from Islam in the 19th century and preaches themes of unity and equality. Although he isn’t religious, his family background meant he was banned from attending university in Iran, leading Mohebpour to move to Vancouver and attend the University of British Columbia.
Mohebpour wants to start discussions with others in the tech community about immigration. He said he hopes that his story, and others like it, will help overturn the immigration ban. The Supreme Court will hear the case against the ban in the spring.