Sam Smolders is an American-raised, Belgium-born game developer, who at the young age of 24, saw his first game get published by a well-known company. But he has one problem: He has been denied entry to the United States so many times that he has “drawn a heavy black list.”
Smolders flew from Belgium to Canada last Tuesday. Then last Thursday, under the cover of darkness, he swam from Canada to Detroit. It was about 2 a.m. when U.S. border agents found him soaking wet. He claimed to have jumped into the Detroit River to fish out his backpack after three men harassed him. Border agents ran a background check on him and found that he had been deported from the United States in 2008 after government officials found out that his immigration documents were never filed properly. He has been twice denied entry since then.
Since he was deported in 2008 at the age of 18, Smolders developed the role-playing game “Victim of Xen,” which has since been published by the well-known company, Big Fish Games. But as Smolders told Develop magazine in March, “there’s no game industry out here [in Belgium], it’s all in the UK and in Germany as well. But my German’s not great either, and I didn’t have anybody to get me over there to make that jump because I’m really on the low end of financing.”
At a U.S. District Court in Detroit this week, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Grand said, “I’d really like to be able to do something for you.” Grand told the lawyers, “The problem is … he clearly knew what he was doing was wrong. He tried to swim over here in the middle of the night.”
He wrote on his public Facebook page, “…there is virtually no method for me to even visit the [United States] without lying, unless I happen to get full payment and support by a business in the US, which, lets face it, is very unlikely.”
Smolders’ situation as a talented, foreign game developer puts him in a similar kind of predicament as thousands of foreign game developers that Silicon Valley wants to recruit. There just simply aren’t enough high-skilled visas to issue to foreigners. There is currently a 65,000 high-skilled visas cap, which in 2013, was reached in five days. The Senate immigration bill would raise the number of high-skilled visas to 110,000.
Silicon Valley companies have been lobbying hard for high-skilled immigration reform since they aren’t able to attract enough skilled American engineers and retain the foreign workers who have to move abroad because of the difficulties of obtaining a visa. Every one foreign-born technology and engineer worker helps to create at least two additional jobs for native U.S. workers.
Among other high-profile technology innovators, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and AOL co-founder Steve Case make the case for comprehensive reform. Zuckerberg pushed for a Day of Action while Case wrote a Wall Street op-ed. Both men are afraid to lose out talent to other countries.
Smolder’s desperation to come back to a country that he spent a lot of time, in fact, for a majority of his life, is something that other undocumented immigrants know well. In fact, it’s a story that has unfolded so many times that illegal re-entries have become the top criminal charge for undocumented immigrants who are caught coming into the U.S since 2008. On his Facebook page in April, Smolders wrote, “After these years, being forced out here. Not even getting my paperwork looked at on the [whim] of the staff, I am now officially not believing in the system. I am going to be pursuing practical, non-system means (meaning that according to the governments, they would be illegal).”