H-1B Visa heartache

Kashmir Times. Dated: 1/12/2018 12:31:11 AM

The fears of Indian workers being deported from the US over H-1B visa may be deferred for the years to come

The changing discourse by the United States' H-1B visa has for many decades been a source of nail-biting tensions in India and for Indians working in mainly the Information Technology (IT) industry. There has been a change in the thought process of the politicians in the US after every four years whenever the presidential elections have taken place on the pretext of protection of jobs opportunities for the US citizens as a priority. The slowdown in the economy all over the world and rising unemployment in the US has forced a change in the discourse of politicians during this period. The visa fees for the emigrants and Indian workers in the US have been hiked to discourage hiring of workers from abroad. Though this has been a continuous process in the US, the increase in demand for trained-manpower from across the world has been attracting a larger number of people. The latest case in point was a scare that President Donald Trump's administration was toying with the idea of new regulations that would restrict extension of the visa by those awaiting a Green Card. Leaving aside technical reasons why such regulations may not take off, the contentious history of the H-1B visa should have given pause to alarmist claims between 500,000 and 750,000 Indians in the US would have to face a situation of 'self-deport'. The majority of the 65,000 H-1B regular-cap visas and 20,000 H-1B advanced-degree visas made available each year are scooped up by Indian nationals, many assimilated into the backbone of the US Information Technology industry. However, on a number of occasions in the past, protection of jobs for the Americans rhetoric has identified this visa category as soft target for the politicians. There has been high political pressure on the US leaders to advance one argument or the other for creating a panic among the Indian and other workers working in IT industry for the past many years and becoming eligible for Permanent Residency. In the past, even during the Obama administration, the bipartisan Comprehensive Immigration Reform plan called for the tightening of qualifying conditions for the H-1B visa. As recently as last year, four bills were tabled in the US Congress proposing new regulations to clamp down on H-1B visas. None of them came to fruition and could be passed. The last salvo was Donald Trump's executive order in April, which was accompanied by much fist-banging but ultimately only called for modest changes, mainly a multi-agency study on what reforms are required. Not only that the US Congressmen also feel that such regulations will only hurt the interest of the IT industry which has been only moving the economy in that country when other sectors have been facing a slowdown of an unprecedented nature.
Apart from the demand of the market in US, there have been other concerns also of the local population that has been facing unemployment due to economic slowdown. The apparently endless cycles of heartache over the H-1B visa stem from a fundamental reality: that the visa itself is designed to be a non-immigrant entry ticket into the US economy, but over time it has become a virtual pathway to Permanent Residency and citizenship, particularly in the case of Indians. The most important reason for this is that most of these 'speciality occupation' workers - primarily experts in fields such as IT, finance, accounting, and STEM subjects - fill a real void in the US labour force. It is not only Indian technological firms whose employees get awarded with H-1B visas, but it is to a great extent a visa that Silicon Valley giants such as Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, Facebook and Qualcomm rely on for their staffing needs. So, there is a self-limiting dimension to any reform that purports to slash H-1B allocations, so that no President or lawmaker would want to be seen as causing economic pain to the companies on whose contributions, the US' reputation as a global technology leader rides. Indian policymakers, who appear to be aware of this subtle truth, should focus their efforts on quiet back-channel lobbying, and eschew knee-jerk reactions every time the 'Buy American, Hire American' rhetoric echoes in Washington. In fact, the Indian policy-makers also need to stay away from their own NDA-government's rhetoric of 'Be India, But Indian' if the global movement of the workers and capital has to continue for the mutual benefit of both the countries. It is also to be borne in mind that a harmonious relationship has to be maintained not only with US but other European countries which attract a large number of Indian workers for their businesses.



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