Behind the loud US political debate in Iraq is the shadow of a coming battle over immigration. President George W Bush used a speech on energy security on Wednesday to declare his support for raising the H-1B visa cap. The Democratic Party had earlier warned of "white-collar professionals" losing their jobs.
This year's quota of H-1B visas, the category for temporary skilled workers of which over half are given to Indians, was filled in June last year. The US had announced then that employers could not apply for more such visas until October 2007.
Bush said, "We've got to expand what's called H-1B visas…I'm looking forward with Congress to do just that."
This may prove difficult with a Democratically-controlled Congress.
Bush's State of the Union address and the Democratic response on Tuesday had focused on Iraq. But Bush also spoke about the need for a "legal and orderly" path for temporary foreign workers. Senator Jim Webb, in the formal Democratic response, noted that "American jobs" were being sent overseas and this was now touching "white-collar professionals" – a reference to outsourcing.
Bush's speech on Wednesday was largely about using technology to reduce US dependency on imported petroleum.
However, he strayed from his speech following a tour of a DuPont chemical plant to say: "As an aside…I also want you to know I understand that we need to make sure that when a smart person from overseas wants to come and work in DuPont, it's in our interests to allow him or her to do so."
Bush admitted, "I'm getting off the topic here — but I feel strongly about what I am telling you."
Bush may have been motivated by the fact over a third of DuPont's scientific base is foreign-born Asians, largely from India and China. DuPont, one of the world's largest chemical firms, began trade with India by exporting gunpowder in 1802 but today uses India as one of its research hubs.
Bush said, "It makes no sense to say to a young scientist from India, you can't come to America to help this company develop technologies that help us deal with our problems."
The problem is that the H1-B visa issue has been subsumed by a more controversial debate over granting citizenship to an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico but with an estimated 280,000 from India.
A proposal to double the H-1B quota to 115,000 a year and build in a 20 per cent annual increase had been part of a larger immigration reform bill. However, it proved impossible to get congressional support for such a bill in the run-up to last year's mid-term elections.
Washington will have to resume the immigration debate this year. Views about immigration reform cut across party lines. Nativist conservatives of the Republican Party and pro-union populists of the Democratic Party, for example, join hands in opposing such measures.
During his State of the Union address, Bush recognised this divide, saying "convictions run deep in this Capitol when it comes to immigration."