President Donald Trump’s administrative minions are rewriting rules for the H1B guest worker visas. In as much as the H1B programme provided US entry and jobs to professionals from across the world, it inadvertently also paved way for more than a million Indian students and skilled professionals to eventually become US citizens, even though it was not meant for that purpose when introduced in 1990. Norms are also being changed for spouses of H1B visa holders on dependent H4 visas. Their work authorisation permit, granted in 2015 under former President Barack Obama, is being spiked by Trump administration, leaving an estimated 1,00,000 Indian H4 spouses in the lurch.
The administration is also considering tightening provisions authorising international student stay in the US. It wants to restrict the F1 student visa for a course-specific time period, with a designated departure date that would compel them to leave the country after they finish college. India sends the second largest contingent of students to the US after China, and many of the 1,86,000 Indian students currently in America intend to eventually join the workforce en route to permanent US residency and citizenship. That rite of passage is about to get very difficult.
The charitable explanation for all these moves is the Trump dispensation wants to curb misuse of H1B visas and curtail student overstays. A more reasoned reading is that such steps are in keeping with Trump’s ‘America First’ pledge and the promise that American workers will have first dibs at American jobs. A darker view is that all this is a thin cover for freezing, if not reversing, the demographic makeover of the United States. It is aimed at maintaining the primacy of nativist white population that will otherwise be overrun by the inevitable browning of America by hungry and hardworking immigrants.
Illustration: Ajit Ninan
New Delhi has said it is engaging closely with Trump administration over measures that affect professionals and students from India more than from any other country – simply by virtue of its huge population and the nature of a large workforce that goes legally to America. But the Indian leadership needs to go beyond the ritual protesting of H1B restrictions and bleating for continuity. Intervention and dialogue to extend and expand such a programme is necessary. New Delhi should open negotiations for a passage for its skilled workforce that otherwise stultifies at home for lack of opportunity, using facts, data and the argument that Indian immigration is a win-win for both countries.
The H1B guest worker programme was a happy accident that has worked to the benefit of the US and India. Back when it was introduced in 1990, it was meant to address worker shortages in the US in specialty areas such as computer engineering and software services. By a happy coincidence, India produced a surplus. Over the next decades, Indians snagged more than 50% of the 65,000 (and later 85,000) H1B visas granted annually on an extendable 3+3 year basis.
Having mandatorily paid social security taxes (with no hope of being reimbursed the money if and when they returned home absent a totalisation treaty between the two countries), many Indian professionals – more than a million by some estimates –are on track to become permanent residents, and later, citizens. Many remain in limbo because of a per country limit that enjoins that no more than 7% of green cards (which allow permanent residency) may be issued to natives of any one country in a fiscal year.
This puts Indians, whose potential immigrant contingent is large, at a disadvantage. Still, many Indians stay on in the US regardless because the United States provides a good ecosystem for professional success. Today, Indians in the US, even those in green card limbo, are acknowledged to be the most dynamic ethnic group in the US – model immigrants. Surveys show they have the highest education attainments and income levels of all immigrants, including white, nativist Americans – who in fact turn out to be relatively poorly-educated and low-income. For all the caterwauling about H1Bs being underpaid and taking away American jobs, Indians who graduate from being students and guest workers to immigrants to US citizens have contributed heftily in terms of taxes, enterprise, innovation and job creation – all to the betterment of the United States.
So what America needs is not so much Hispanic caravans from Latin and Central America to do the grunt work Americans will not do, but a professional workforce to take care of jobs that Americans cannot do. Fecund India is home to the world’s most dynamic workforce – whether it is supplying blue collar labour to the Gulf or white collar expertise to the Anglophone world. Exporting its services through movement of natural persons, part of the WTO’s General Agreement of Trade in Services, should be as much a priority as exporting goods. Much of this has been stymied by Washington with its insistence on broadbasing (and now narrowing) its immigrant human capital, which effectively discriminates against large population countries such as India. This also results in the US losing better-qualified immigrants.
In India too, critics of immigration who often taunt those heading to greener shores need to realise that increasing India’s global workforce, not just in the US but also in other countries with low population density, low birth rates, and adverse demographics, adds to New Delhi’s global heft. Financial remittance and benefit aside, immigration is what puts internationalist Indians in plum positions, such as the CXOs of multinationals and leaders of multilateral organisations, besides setting the improbable scenario of a Nikki Haley vs Kamala Harris presidential election faceoff in 2024.