When it comes to immigration stories, the United States government’s decision to raise the salary requirements of H-1B visa workers have received the most attention among Indians. Contemporaneously, Australia and New Zealand have also announced plans to slash the number of visas available to high-skilled temporary workers. Similar policy moves are being considered or are being carried out by many other countries, largely in the developed world.
None of this should come as a surprise. High-skilled worker migration has generally been a phenomenon of advanced economies – and most of these are suffering from anaemic growth, weak job creation and stagnant middle-class incomes. As has happened before, poor economics undermines political support for this particularly category of visas. The parameters by which H-1B visas been issued have kept shifting over nearly three decades, depending on the political economy of the US at the time.
There are demands that New Delhi should treat this as a litmus test of the bilateral relationship and make H-1B visas a point of contention with the Trump administration. This would be a mistake. A country’s immigration policy, in effect its control of its own borders, is among the most sovereign-based decisions of any government. Washington will rightly reject any attempt to be told to who and whom it can issue a visa to – as would New Delhi if it was in a similar position. The larger geopolitical and economic drivers in the Indo-US relationship are much more important than the US’s decision to raise the cost of a visa. In fact, the preservation of the steady flow of legal Indian migration to the US, a human bridge which has benefited both countries, is of greater importance than the H-1B niche.
Having said this, there can be no doubt that such visas have a larger-than-life profile with the Indian public because of their association with the successful software services sector. But the so-called Mode 4 model that drove the H-1B visa is slowly dying thanks to automation and an increasing preference in Silicon Valley for in-house software expertise. The Indian software industry is within its rights to lobby the US Congress for to save the H-1B visa, but the Indian government should be wary of investing too much diplomatic capital in what is likely to a quixotic campaign. There are much more important issues to be worked out with the Trump administration. New Delhi could have fixed skilled worker visas with some of these countries as part a free trade agreement – as other countries have done. But since India is allergic to such agreements, that was never a serious option. Migration is a door that slams shut when even a small breeze blows. Right now, a gale is blowing and India must wait for it to wane.