As owner and CEO of Challa Law Group, located in Virginia’s 7th congressional district, and special counsel on immigration matters to Virginia’s attorney general, Lakshmi Challa knows how vital immigration reform is to her local economy. “The seventh district has many companies with multinational workforces that help boost the economy here,” says Challa. Throughout her 20 years of specializing in employment-based immigration law, she has worked with Fortune 500 corporations and start-up ventures in information technology, business, and healthcare. “I work with universities and companies all over the nation, and these institutions are concerned about the lack of immigration options that would allow us to retain the best and brightest global resources,” she says. “These people could hold the next revelation to transform our world, and we’re forcing them to go elsewhere.”
These businesses are apprehensive about making the substantial capital investment, given the uncertainty of our immigration process.
Challa has also worked with economic development officials on the state and federal level and met with international businesses interested in expanding to the United States as a platform to market their product globally. These businesses, she says, “are apprehensive about making the substantial capital investment, given the uncertainty of our immigration process. I always say that the three stools of economic development are innovation, investment, and immigration. Unless you have all three legs of the stool, you’re not going to be an economic driver.”
Immigration is also a personal issue for Challa. Her grandfather came here on a boat in the 1940s and received his PhD from the University of Minnesota before working for the food and agriculture arm of the United Nations. He ultimately returned to India, but Challa’s own parents soon followed in his footsteps. In 1967, on Challa’s third birthday, she and her mother moved to North Carolina, where her father was getting his PhD in geology. Years later, after returning to India for an extended visit and marrying an Indian citizen, Challa realized she could not return to the United States; she had stayed outside the country for more than a year and unknowingly abandoned her permanent resident status. She was devastated.
“Think about that,” says Challa. “I grew up here. I get goosebumps when I hear the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ I’m a real history buff and know all of The Preamble. I love football and baseball. For all practical purposes, I was an American. And, all of a sudden, I couldn’t come back.”
Eventually her husband was able to secure a student visa for his PhD and, in a moment of serendipity, on her own daughter’s third birthday, Challa finally returned to the place she calls home. She studied law at the University of Richmond, and in 1995, when her own family was applying for citizenship, she realized she wanted to dedicate her life to immigration law.
“I knew immigration was my calling,” she says. “And I knew I wanted to make sure my practice was not only geared toward businesses looking to expand, but to also make sure we are doing our fair share of outreach to those who don’t have a voice and don’t know where to go.”
Her hard work paid off. Recently, Virginia Business Magazine named her firm one of Virginia’s “Legal Elite,” and for the last nine years, she and her colleagues have served as special counsel on immigration to Virginia’s attorney general. She also does community outreach through free webinars offered by her firm and frequent speaking engagements, including a talk she just gave where representatives from 42 different universities from across the country were in attendance.
“You’re able to really see how lucky we are to get the best and brightest students from all over the world,” says Challa. “These folks range from doing cutting-edge research in medicine to coming up with crazy applications for mobile devices. And whether they go on to make a huge mark on the U.S., or start a small business that grows and adds jobs and creates an economic boost for a community, it’s exciting. But they’re all worried about the same thing: What happens when I graduate? How can I stay here?”
What legislators have to remember, says Challa, is that even though the United States is a nation with rich human capital and phenomenal higher education, we are now in a global economy and competing with countries from all over the world.
“Right now, we are still the platform for when somebody wants to go global,” says Challa. “They know this is the launching pad to make a mark internationally. Immigrants create jobs, innovate, and do so much for our economy, so it makes no sense that our policies make it difficult for them to come here.”