In his first remarks after being sworn in as US attorney general on Thursday, Jeff Sessions, an immigration hawk and, notably for India, a strident critic of the H-1B temporary visa programme, called for a “lawful system of immigration”.
One of President Donald Trump’s most contentious cabinet picks, Sessions was confirmed by the senate on Wednesday at the end of a bitterly contested process, during which he was accused of racism and bigotry by Democrats.
“We need a lawful system of immigration,” Sessions said after his swearing in at the White House. “That’s not wrong, that’s not immoral, that’s not indecent. We need to end that lawlessness that threatens the American people.”
As head of the country’s federal prosecution branch and premier investigating agency FBI, Sessions will have considerable influence over the Trump administration at home and abroad, and immeasurably more as a close adviser.
The Indian government, which has had, according to officials on both sides, “productive interactions (meetings and phone calls)” with the new US administration, has been paying close attention to Sessions’s appointment and the confirmation process.
The former Alabama senator has been a strident critic of H-1B — a visa programme that allows American companies and multinationals based here — hire high-skilled foreign workers temporarily, for a maximum of six years.
As a senator, Sessions introduced a bill to make it prohibitively expensive for American employers to bring foreign workers under the H-1B programme by proposing a high wage ceiling for such hirings, making it less profitable to hire foreigners.
And he co-sponsored a legislation that sought to cut the annual cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 (plus 20,000 issued to foreigners already in the US, enrolled in colleges and universities) to 50,000.
In fact, Sessions has said he believes the programme could be done away with entirely. “I don’t think the republic would collapse if it was totally eliminated,” he said at an election rally in October 2016, according to Des Moines Register.
It’s not just him, or his proximity to the president. New Delhi worries about his erstwhile staffers, who are now in critical positions in the administration and who are now pushing the same line of thinking, most critically Stephen Miller.
Miller subscribes to Sessions’s scepticism about H-1Bs completely and tabled critical changes in the current system in a meeting Trump had with Silicon Valley CEOs and leader earlier, famously branded as the Tech Summit. One, to do away with the lottery system of distributing the annual quota of H-1Bs as the demand far outstrips the availability, and replace it with a system that will give priority to visa applications for high-paying jobs. Two, to remove the Masters degree waiver to attract the best and the most educated foreigners and not those brought here to replace Americans even from relatively lower-skilled, low-paying jobs, as has happened under outsourcing.
Trump is reportedly considering a set of changes on H-1B, and could, as reflected in a leaked draft of an executive order going around, seek a review of the current system with recommendations for what needs to stay and change.
Sessions, it is expected, will be a close adviser on the issue.