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The ‘extraordinary alien underground’ helping tech’s skilled immigrants grab visas

For the talented strivers of tech, the visa struggle is real. A network of free advice-givers and paid consultants looks to lend a hand.

The image features a person's blurry face overlaid with a grid of bright, colorful LED lights, creating a futuristic and abstract effect.
Sigil Wen, a 20-year-old AI engineer, landed a much-coveted O-1 visa last year. Now he’s paying it forward to fellow “aliens of extraordinary ability.” | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Two months ago, Sigil Wen began selling “visa drip”—fashionable $60 black hoodies emblazoned with the slogan, “Alien of Extraordinary Ability.”

Wen, a 20-year-old senior AI engineer at Airchat, a social audio app in San Francisco, said he’d hand-delivered 30 free hoodies to recipients of O-1 visas, the U.S. visa granted to exceptionally talented immigrants. It’s a passion project, he said—he knows firsthand how stressful the visa trenches can be. Last year, Wen, a Canadian national, spent nine lonely, anxious months holed up with his parents in Toronto, before his own O-1 visa was approved. 

In January, Wen published a 20-minute how-to video on X providing a tutorial on obtaining an O-1 visa, which has received more than 268,000 views. “Many people who are talented enough to move here don’t actually know because the visa process is so unclear,” he said. “I want to demystify the skilled immigration process.”

A person in a black hoodie sits at a desk with a laptop, a monitor, books, and a drink. The monitor displays "ALIENS OF EXTRAORDINARY ABILITY."
Wen at home in the Mission wearing his Alien of Extraordinary Ability sweatshirt. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

He’s not the only one paying it forward. An extraordinary alien underground is thriving in the Bay Area, where visa-seeking professionals, mostly working in tech, attend salons and fireside chats, log into secret slack channels and Discord groups, register for how-to events and off-the-record Zooms, and pay hundreds for private coaching sessions and consult calls—all providing guidance to help skilled foreign workers eke out a legal status in the country. 

In San Francisco, the visa struggle is real—and so is the visa support network. The city’s status as ground zero for startups owes much to the diversity of the talent it attracts. Fifty-five percent of unicorn companies had immigrant founders as recently as 2022, and around two-thirds of Silicon Valley tech workers were foreign born that year.

Regardless, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services excels at placing roadblocks in front of thirsty entrepreneurs. None of the visas offered to founders and skilled employees are straightforward. The H-1B visa, through which an immigrant is sponsored by a current or future employer, is so highly sought after that the USCIS awards these via a lottery. Hopefuls have a 10% shot of making it. 

Then there’s the E-2, a.k.a. the “entrepreneur” visa, which requires a $100,000 investment from a third-party, a high bar for most founders (plus you must be from a treaty country, which does not include tech worker hotbeds of China, India and Russia).

A hand is selecting a book from a neatly arranged bookshelf that features titles such as "Scaling People," "The Dark Forest," and "High Growth Handbook."
Wen arranges his book collection—including multiple titles from the publishing arm of tech company Stripe—in his apartment on Mission Street in SoMa. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

Enter the O-1, officially the “alien of extraordinary ability” visa, the most coveted of the bunch. It has no cap on numbers, no country restrictions or capital investment requirements, and no strings attached. It’s endlessly renewable, and can potentially be converted into a green card. 

The visa has two subcategories: the O-1A, which covers STEM, business, and sports professions, and the O-1B, which is used by musicians and movie stars. The volume of O-1A visas issued jumped 42% from 2019 to 2023, which is attributed to a broader awareness of its existence.

The O-1 costs $1,055 (plus fees) to apply, with an additional $2,805 charge to receive a response in two weeks. Because it’s the visa used by celebrities like Justin Bieber and David Beckham, some applicants assume that they will fall short of the “extraordinary” rubric. They might be wrong.

 “People think the O-1 is unobtainable, when in reality it’s about storytelling and knowing the right lawyers,” said Julius Ritter, a German transplant, O-1 visa holder, and founder of Basis Health, a Bay Area Blueprint meal delivery service.

Ritter believes there are ample ways to game the eight-point checklist that qualifies someone for an O-1. It includes receiving internationally recognized awards, media coverage, publishing papers in respected journals, and professional judging experience in your field. “Judge some hackathons, and you should be good,” he said. Successful applicants must check a minimum of three boxes on the list, though five is the gold standard, legal experts say. 

Though Ritter ultimately landed his visa, he faced plenty of impediments and constant confusion. “It was a pain,” he said. “I met dozens of lawyers.” He compiled his learnings into a Notion doc that he shares for free on Gumroad.  “I want to help other founders avoid the mistakes I made.” 

Plus, he said, “it’s also a good way to collect emails.”

Three friends wearing black hoodies pose on electric bikes; two with glasses and one in a white cap. They stand together on a sunny urban street with buildings behind them.
Wen, center, poses with fellow O-1 visa winners, Victor Perez, left, and Diego Rodriguez, co-founders of Krea, a generative AI platform. | Source: Courtesy Sigil Wen

‘It’s been so hard. Aghhhhhh!’

It took Sigil Wen months to compile the evidence needed to check the O-1 boxes. “For every category I argued for, I had to find someone to validate it,” he said. 

He assembled five  letters of recommendation, another big part of qualifying for the O-1. Generally four to eight are required, and the more impressive the signatory, the better. 

Wen’s lawyers at SMA Immigration Law crafted the letters in specific legalese, which he then forwarded to contacts who had agreed to vouch for him. There was a bunch of chasing involved, he said. One of his endorsers digitally signed it, which Wen’s lawyer wouldn’t accept. He called them, “Can you please print it out, ink-sign it and scan it?”

”The whole coordination thing,” he said, was “a necessary evil.”

Wen was in bed in his mom’s house in Toronto when the email he’d been waiting for popped into his inbox. “Dude, it’s 1 am and I just got my O-1 approved…It’s been so hard. Aghhhhhh!” he said in a shirtless video he posted to X. 

“I was just so happy,” he told The Standard. 

Another San Francisco extraordinary alien applicant named Kay, who declined to share her last name in case it affects her visa application, has spent the last month polishing up her O-1 application from her Rincon Hill apartment. She is a 25-year-old Russian founder of a cancer diagnostic startup, who says she’s optimistic but frustrated with how time-consuming the process is. “Instead of focusing on product development, [I’m trying] to get invited to judge hackathons,” she said. 

The image shows a person holding a name badge that reads "Judge/Mentor" and "Sigil Ven," with a lanyard labeled "treehacks." It appears festive with decorations like beads, candy canes, and garlands in the background.
Wen’s credentials from tech events hang from a toy stuffed giraffe in his apartment. | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard

The first two lawyers Kay contacted rejected her, she said. A founder friend directed her to an immigration firm that specializes in startup visas, and they took her case. They were positive about her patent, startup experience, and academic preprints—but also pragmatic. “You have potential,” they told her, but she needed to check more boxes. Hence the hackathons.

“It’s just a matter of framing it,” said Kay.

“Really smart people [tend to] undersell themselves,” said Minn Kim, the 31-year-old founder of Lighthouse HQ, a visa consultancy that launched in March with the slogan, “the fastest immigration solution for the world’s brightest technologists.” She estimates that there are thousands of people nationwide who are both eligible and qualified for the O-1, but don’t realize it—or know how to market themselves to immigration authorities.

One reason: Bragging isn’t as accepted in other cultures as it is in America. Think of it this way, Kim recommends: Did you judge a hackathon, or were you selected for your expert capacity in AI to judge a premier event, with a prize pool of $50,000, 200 participants, and a prior winner whose startup was acquired for $30 million.

Such language can make or break an application. Founders will want to say “it wasn’t just me, it was my team,” said Kim. “But we are looking to elevate you.” 

‘I hate the immigration process’

Lighthouse HQ’s network connects applicants to a range of high-profile people who are open to signing recommendation letters. Many have been through the immigration gauntlet themselves, hence their willingness to help, she said.

Hundreds of Bay Area founders credit their visa success services like Kim’s. “Shoutout @minney_cat for getting it done like a real pro,” tweeted Trevor McCourt, the CTO of Extropic AI, in October, who worked with Kim at her prior immigration startup, Plymouth Street. McCourt’s girlfriend baked him a cake to celebrate, icing it red, blue, and white, with candles spelling out “O1.”

A person in glasses and a black hoodie adjusts a setup with a large, bright flame, appearing to conduct an experiment in a workshop with tools hanging on the wall.
Danielle Fong, a Canadian citizen and CEO of Lightcell Energy, uses a gas torch while wearing an Aliens of Extraordinary Ability hoodie. | Source: Courtesy Sigil Wen

“She was amazing,” said Danielle Fong, a Canadian O-1 holder, and the founder of Lightcell Energy, a startup that converts light to electricity. “Managing visa stuff is some of the emotionally heaviest stuff [I’ve] had to do.”

Some visa hopefuls are also turning to in-person events for advice—or at least commiseration. In early June, around 40 people gathered at the SF Homebrew Crypto Club in Potrero Hill, a warehouse-like coworking space with exposed brick walls, for a “fast track your green card” salon, hosted by Alex Pudov, another O-1 visa holder. 

“I hate the immigration process. I haven’t seen my wife for a year,” said Pudov, a general partner at EdTech Booster Capital. His wife was trapped in Portugal due to poor legal advice, he said. “I was so angry that I decided to create my own company.” 

In early 2024, Pudov came up with Migrator, a visa-expediting startup that charges a $12,000 fee with a visa-or-your-money-back guarantee (not including USCIS fees). “We have a 97% success rate,” Pudov said, as he clicked through a slide deck detailing visa eligibility. 

Audience members at Homebrew, the majority dressed in the startup uniform of jeans, company tees, and Veja or Allbirds sneakers, snapped pictures of the slides on their iPhones. Next on Pudov’s roadmap is an AI Immigration app, launching this summer, he said. The price will be lower to democratize access.

Pudov’s pro tip for O-1 seekers: print supporting documents on an expensive cardstock. Government officials often skim these heartfelt packets, and luxury paper can give your application more legitimacy, he explained.

Sounds arbitrary and inequitable? That’s precisely the problem. “In San Francisco, like, 10% of conversations at parties [are] about immigration,” said Wen. People are desperate to get here and desperate to stay, and they need every ounce of help they can get. “There are so many people trying to get visas.” 

But he understands the drive, he said. For him, staying in Canada was never an option. “If you scale up the ambition meter, you come to San Francisco.”

A young person with short hair, wearing a black hoodie with text on it, is lounging on a white couch, smiling with hands casually behind their head.
Wen says that staying in Canada was never an option: “If you scale up the ambition meter, you come to San Francisco.” | Source: Tâm Vũ/The Standard