The H-1B visa programme is facing the political guillotine once again. The visa programme, designed to let US firms import highly-skilled workers to temporarily fill in workforce gaps, had been under sustained attack from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. In keeping with Mr Trump’s record of fulfilling his campaign promises, it is no surprise that an executive order to restrict H-1B visas is in the offing. The US president is not alone. Four separate anti-H visa bills have been introduced in the US Congress.
The H visa is highly imperfect. A large number of them are used to bring in low-end software programmers just to save on labour costs which was not the original intent. The visa also gives far too much authority to the US employer who has veto over the worker’s ability to apply to become a full-time US resident. As the administrative path between the temporary worker’s visa and the green card is unclear, 1.5 million, mostly Indian, workers live in an immigration limbo today.
The H visas for tech workers have separated into two levels. One set are used by mainly Indian outsourcing firms to carry out lower-end programming jobs. Another set is for better-paid project work for big US tech firms. Mr Trump’s victory is being read by US politicians as evidence of electoral anger over the first variety of H visas, which is what both Mr Trump and the US Congress are targeting. The creamy layer of H visas will survive because of the lobbying power of Silicon Valley. There is probably little India can do about this legislative shift.
The question New Delhi should ask is what can it do to prevent this H visa roller-coaster in future. Many countries have negotiated trade deals with the US, which incorporate a fixed H visa quota. Unfortunately, this will almost certainly be beyond the protectionist mindset of India’s commerce ministry. New Delhi should be working with Washington to create a new variety of temporary work visa that reduces the scope for abuse and offers a clear path towards legal residency — if only as a favour to the Indian workers involved. The Indian infotech firms should support this as there is evidence that body-shopping is a dying business model.
In the meantime, the government should consider how to entice more highly-skilled Indians to give up on their American dream and return home. Surveys indicate many of these migrants are in two minds. But this requires India to create a more convivial business environment. Indian-Americans are among the most entrepreneurial communities in the world, but need an eco-system to flourish. Otherwise, waiting out the Trump administration is still a better option for them.