Kansas City App Developer Sees Immigrants Helping Revitalize the American Heartland

More than 90 percent of the residents of Overland Park, Kansas, are American-born — but when Vijay Ainapurapu goes to work at the Sprint Nextel headquarters, where he’s an IT architect and app developer, he’s routinely surrounded by people hailing from places like Brazil, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and India. “More than half of the technical roles are filled by immigrants,” he says.

Ainapurapu himself was born and raised in Hyderabad, India, where he attended a large public university, double-majoring in science and mathematics before getting an MBA. He came to the United States in the late 1980s almost by accident, after his Indian employer sent him on what was intended to be a brief trip to its U.S. branch, then wound up asking him to stay on. Despite wrestling with homesickness, Ainapurapu stuck it out, eventually transferring to IBM in California. “Once I got into IT, it was pretty clear that most of the opportunities were outside of India,” he says.

After working for several years at IBM, Ainapurapu received a job offer from Sprint to work in their national headquarters in Kansas. “I didn’t even know where Kansas was,” he recalls. Still, he accepted the offer, even though it meant applying for a new visa and sacrificing the three years of progress he’d made towards converting his original visa into a green card. In so doing,

Ainapurapu became part of the wave of highly skilled immigrants then spreading from the coastal cities into the American heartland. Fifteen years ago, when Ainapurapu moved to Kansas, there were barely 8,000 Indian-Americans in the whole state; by 2010, that number had jumped by 70 percent. “It’s growing in leaps and bounds—and it’s not just new immigrants, but people moving from the coasts and bigger cities,” he says.

Through both his work in IT and his role as president of the India Association of Kansas City, Ainapurapu sees skilled Indian workers continuing to flock to the Kansas City area, in a kind of reverse brain drain that he says allows companies to fill positions that would otherwise be left empty or shipped overseas. “It’s not like you couldn’t find someone” to do these jobs, he says. “But at this cost, and in this place? Probably not.” Companies like Sprint already outsource about 60 percent of their technical work, which indicates to Ainapurapu that if immigrants weren’t here to provide cost-effective technological know-how, companies would ship even more jobs overseas.

Ainapurapu sees skilled Indian workers continuing to flock to the Kansas City area, in a kind of reverse brain drain that he says allows companies to fill positions that would otherwise be left empty or shipped overseas.

Ainapurapu says a more streamlined visa process would help companies hire the highly skilled workers they need. “If you had a situation where you could hire anyone from anywhere, it’d make things much easier,” Ainapurapu says. For example, Sprint would love to hire more STEM graduates straight out of college, but the shortage of visas for skilled workers means that only about one in five foreign-born applicants actually gains employment authorization, he says. “It’s hit-or-miss, and obviously a company like Sprint can’t rely on such an uncertain process.”

Ainapurapu also wants to see the visa system overhauled so employees aren’t tied to a fixed role with a single employer. “The system right now isn’t working. It isn’t the best way to attract skilled migrants,” he says. Greater flexibility would make it easier for people to take promotions or, like Ainapurapu, to look beyond Silicon Valley and the East Coast, and build lives and careers in the places their skills are most needed. He also says that immigrants who have begun the process of obtaining a green card shouldn’t have to restart the process every time they change jobs.

Ainapurapu is now a U.S. citizen, and happily settled in Kansas, with a wife and two thriving U.S.-born Indian-American children. While he still misses India, and knows he could likely earn more money in Silicon Valley or New York or Chicago, he says he can’t imagine himself anywhere else. “There’s a lot more to Kansas than just cows. It’s a decent place, a very good place to raise a family,” he says. “Every couple of months, I’ll get calls from recruiters, but I’m happy here, and I don’t want to move.”

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