Shooting, Immigration Fears Add Uncertainty To High-Tech Recruiting In Kansas City

Mar 6, 2017

Looking back, Mira Mdivani says she can now connect the events and put them in context.

“Before the shooting, actually,” she says, “I had a phone call from an Indian national who emigrated to the United States and is a United States citizen.”

Mdivani, an immigration attorney in Overland Park, Kansas, was recalling the Feb. 22 shooting at an Olathe bar in which two Indian men were targeted in what appears to have been a racially motivated attack.

The caller, an engineer at a local company, told her he was scared for his family since President Trump took office. He wanted to take them back to India and put his kids in school there, Mdivani says. She thought it was sad.

Immigration lawyer Mira Mdivani says she's been flooded with calls from businesses and their employees worried about the rights of immigrants.
Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3

“This is someone … who has a lot of talent, has brought his talent to the United States,” Mdivani says. “His wife is a professional as well, and they don’t see a future here.

“And then two days later there was a shooting that put it into a completely horrible context.”

The shooting ended with Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, dead and his friend, Alok Madasani, 31, wounded in an incident now being investigated by the FBI as a hate crime. The two were at the bar to enjoy after-work whiskeys when they were allegedly targeted because the shooter thought they were from the Middle East. In fact, both are from India and both worked at Garmin, the GPS company based in Lenexa, Kansas.

“I had no idea, no way of knowing, how in context this will look very ominous,” Mdivani says.

But even before the shootings, Mdivani was flooded with calls. Businesses and their employees are worried about visa applications, a deportation crackdown and working in other NAFTA countries, she says.

News of the shootings continues to stress businesses who have hired and are recruiting the highly educated and highly trained international workers they need for IT and engineering jobs. Trump’s ban on legal immigration from predominately Muslim countries and a draft order targeting a work visa program have added to companies's fears.

Add to that the constant challenge many international recruiters face about America’s reputation for violence.

“Sometimes they actually still think we’re the wild, wild West,” says Kevin Truman, dean of the school of computing and engineering at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Truman regularly recruits in India – and it’s paid off. About 26 percent of the computing and engineering school’s 1,672 students are Indian. Among UMKC’s graduates was Madasani, the wounded Garmin worker. Yet Truman says the school’s enrollment is down about 50 foreign students this semester.

“Clearly the political climate in the United States right now has cost us some international students,” Truman says. “I think if you look at even the national trends, there are more students going to Canada and the U.S. and Australia.”

Praful Saklani, founder and CEO of Pramata, a company that digitizes and connects customer data for big businesses, has an interesting perspective on working in Kansas City. When he opened the local office here last year, then-Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Mayor Sly James attended the press conference. Pramata’s press release was headlined: “Our fantastic welcome to Kansas City.”

Pramata CEO Praful Saklana says he makes sure his employees are well-documented.
Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3

Saklani, an Indian immigrant who grew up in Minnesota, says he’s been concerned since the Olathe shooting, though he doesn’t see a pattern of problems.

“Whenever a shooting occurs in our country, and the people involved are similar to you in some way, it’s very rattling,” he says.

Part of his job as the company’s chief executive is to be concerned about the political climate and how that might affect his workers traveling all over the world, Saklani says. His employees are well-documented, going so far as to carry invitation letters and lists of telephone numbers; so far there have been no problems.

Saklani’s been working in Kansas City since 2007 and describes it in the parlance of his business.

“Literally 100 percent of my personal interactions in Kansas City, with a wide range of people, having eaten at dozens of restaurants, talked to hundreds of individuals and business leaders -- it’s been 100 percent positive,” he says. “And look at all that data -- over 10 years!”

That’s important, Mdivani, says. She was recently visited by a Missouri legislator who wanted to know how to attract and keep highly trained IT and engineering workers in the area. Her answer was simple:

“It starts with the culture and the signals we’re sending to businesses and their international personnel.  If the attitude is, you’re not welcome here and go home or else I’ll shoot you, that’s not going to work.”

Peggy Lowe is KCUR's investigations editor. She can be reached at @peggyllowe.