The immigrant is arguably the most unloved figure in Western politics these days. Anti-immigrant sentiment helped drive the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union, threatens to overturn the French political applecart and is troubling even the once unassailable Angela Merkel. It was also a key plank in the election campaign of Donald Trump, who took special aim at illegal immigrants from Mexico. India is the second-largest recipient of US visas in the world. However, its role as the main user of H-1B visas, a temporary work visa granted to highly-skilled workers, is where it is likely to face the most political flak in the new administration. New Delhi should consider pre-empting the US president-elect from taking punitive measures that would damage India’s otherwise positive public views regarding the sole superpower.
The signals from the Trump transition team lean towards the negative. One of the most strident opponents of the H-1B, Senator Jeff Sessions, has been chosen as attorney-general and his staffer is in charge of a task force on immigration policy. Trump himself has blown hot and cold on H-1B on the campaign trail, calling for their abolition and then saying he supports the entry of highly-skilled migrants. As a businessman Trump is susceptible to the views of his kind so the US software industry needs to be mobilised to make the case for preserving the H-1B visa. Their requests for such visas still outnumber the full quota by about four to one so there is clearly considerable demand for such migrants. By all accounts, Trump is determined to pander to the demands of the white working class, which propelled him to power. It needs to be made clear to him that this group, whose members have been pushed out of assembly-lines and mining shafts, is not threatened by Indian code-writers and programmers. Studies have shown, in fact, that cheap infotech helps create nearly three additional jobs in other sectors in the US by making firms more competitive.
Nonetheless, New Delhi should be realistic. Some sort of restrictions on H-1B visas will be inevitable, if not in actual numbers but in the parameters by which such visas are granted. This will still be better than abolition of the visa category. Once wiped out, visa categories are harder to re-establish. But regulatory changes are often left to the executive. H and other skilled migrant visa categories have gone through many ups and downs in the past, so it may make sense to accept a temporary down to ensure a future up. One argument that may resonate with President-elect Trump is that one person who claims to have come to the US on an H-1B is a former model by the name of Melania Knauss, the present Mrs Trump.