The immigration reform bill that now seems set to die in the US Senate more than doubles the number of H-1B visas per year. Nonetheless, the Indian software industry spent tens of thousands dollar lobbying against the bill.
The real catch in the bill for Bangalore’s big boys was the Durbin-Grassley amendment and what came to be known as the “50:50 clause”. Under this any firm operating in the US would have not been allowed to have more than half its employees under H-1B visas. Indian officials say the amendment was the child of the US software industry and meant to undercut the cost advantage of Indian competitors. “Fulfilling this rule is easy for Microsoft, but tough for Infosys,” says one.
Others feel the amendment was the natural consequence of several cases of Indian firms being investigated by the US Department of Labour for abusing H-1B visas, often by underpaying workers. NASSCOM was joined by five or six of the larger Indian infotech companies in fighting the amendment. Indian-Americans joined the fray as well. Says Sanjay Puri of the US-India Political Action Committee, “We were against the clause. It had also consequences for Indian-American IT companies and other cutting-edge tech companies.”
A number of other clauses inimical to infotech firms were successfully removed, he noted, including one that would have required all H-1B job offers to be posted on the US Department of Labour website for US tech workers to see. But the 50:50 clause was part of the final bill.
Indians got 49 per cent and computer-related occupations 45.3 per cent of the 116,927 H-1B visas issued by the US in 2005.
A larger issue, says Vivek Wadhwa, an expert on skilled migrants at Duke University, is that H-1B workers only hold temporary jobs and are not automatically eligible for citizenship. “In the long-term they are stuck in immigration limbo. They usually want to stay in the US, but have to wait 6 to 10 years.” Wadhwa feels clearing the backlog in green card applications that leaves H-1B workers stranded is more important than increasing visa numbers.
Indian-Americans did push for the Cantwell-Cornyn amendment which would cleared a straight path for citizenship among tech workers. Says Puri, “This would have created an employer-based merit system with 140,000 green cards for high-skilled immigrants. Unfortunately, it was never allowed to come up for vote.”
However, the points system that was the key to the Senate bill would have opened a completely different immigration door for Indian techies, says Deborah Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute. “Skilled Indian workers would no longer require an employer to sponsor them. They could have got in on the basis of their qualifications,” she said. The bill even gave science, engineering and mathematical skills a privileged position within the points system.