It's a strange world where a man can get choked up at the sight of a Starbucks. But Punit Modhgil knows all about the strange world. This is a guy...

Share story

SAN JOSE, Calif. — It’s a strange world where a man can get choked up at the sight of a Starbucks.

But Punit Modhgil knows all about the strange world.

This is a guy who grew up in India, worked his way to Silicon Valley and found the American dream — only to have his dream crushed in the post-Sept. 11 frenzy.

And you want strange? These days Modhgil wonders whether being expelled from the United States was for the good. Maybe, he says, America isn’t the best place to dream anymore.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“I see opportunity in India right now,” Modhgil says. “I see opportunity in Europe now.”

It’s funny where life will take you. Had Modhgil, 35, not run up against immigration agents at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in November 2001, he might be living in Silicon Valley still.

He might be at Siebel Systems, where he was a product manager before authorities told him he could either board a plane for India immediately, or go to jail, for what he feared might be an indefinite stay.He might have missed the transformation that he says he now sees after spending nearly four years away.

Modhgil was back to visit old friends in Silicon Valley recently, for the first time since he was turned out of the country. It was an emotional tour, during which the sight of old haunts, such as Starbucks, could set off a reaction.

“I’m feeling emotional at every turn I’m taking on the street. There are so many memories.”

And he left them so abruptly. He was returning from a wedding in Italy in 2001 when officers at O’Hare spotted among his papers a card identifying him as a photographer. They found his Web site, which appeared to be that of a professional photographer.

The officers accused him of working beyond the scope of his high-tech work visa. Modhgil told them he was never paid for his photography. They didn’t believe him.

“I broke down emotionally,” he says. “I was crying.”

He left with no chance to gather his belongings at his Palo Alto rental. No time to say goodbye.

But Modhgil is a man who prefers to look forward.

On the table in front of us as we talked was Modhgil’s copy of Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.” It is a study of how technology and political changes have leveled the game in terms of global competition. Modhgil could hardly contain himself.

“This guy gets it,” Modhgil says. “He writes about Bangalore in a way I can’t describe it. The change is phenomenal.”

Bangalore is where Modhgil ended up after being forced out of the United States.

The entrepreneurial spirit is raging there, he says. Every time he turns around, a U.S.-based multinational is opening an office. People are determined to succeed.

It sounds like the Silicon Valley he left, but not the one he returned to visit.

“The positive energy is missing,” he says. “The excitement is missing. The buzz is missing.”

Modhgil moved on to a marketing director’s job at a London technology firm. He plans eventually to return to India, where he is building a home. “An American-style one,” he says, “marble floors, swimming pool.”

Meanwhile, he is waiting for word on his appeal of the immigration decision that sent him on his odyssey. He filed it nearly four years ago, before the Immigration and Naturalization Service was split into three agencies.

Immigration authorities said last week they were trying to determine what happened to Modhgil’s appeal and which new agency, in fact, would be responsible for it.

Modhgil’s lawyer says the whole thing is bizarre.

Or maybe it’s just another strange situation in a strange new world.

Mike Cassidy is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.