A US House committee on judiciary considered Thursday ways to sharpen the H-1B visa regime that allows short-term employment here for highly skilled foreign workers, and is crucial to India's ballooning services trade with this country.
Though there were no specific proposals before the committee to change the existing laws, the aim was to take a really hard look at those being allowed in, with special attention being paid to those who "game the process".
It generated much interest among companies doing business with India or Indian companies with US operations, whose staffers packed the hearing chamber in Rayburn House building on Capitol Hill.
The US grants 65,000 H-1B visas annually.
"The purpose was to explore the H-1B visa programme and examine ways to improve (it) to ensure visas are awarded to the best foreign workers to help promote US economy and protect US workers," said a House judiciary staffer.
In other words this was not about the visa fee hike that has so roiled Indian businesses and the government lately, or the extension of the fee raise to compensate 9/11 first-responders and look after them."Restrictions that unfairly impact Indian companies, and force them to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the cost are harmful to everyone's best interests.," said Nasscom chief Som Mittal in a written testimony at the hearing.
Though India was not the focus of the hearing and did not find any mention in the opening remarks by Lamar Smith, chairman of the House committee on the judiciary, one of the witnesses names Indian companies as major beneficiaries.
Ronil Hira, an academic testifying before the committee, named Infosys, Wipro, Satyam (now Satyam Mahindra) and Tata (he probably meant TCS) among the major recipients of H-1B visas.
The US-India Business Council complained about this "targeting" in a separate written testimony to the committee. "The continued targeting of Indian companies could these opportunities in jeopardy," said Ron Somers.
The listed business of the committee was to improve the programme, making it more relevant, weeding out the frauds and preventing US jobs from being traded off cheaply.
The topic was "Designing a Program to Meet the Needs of the U.S. Economy and U.S. Workers".
In the opening remarks, Smith, chairman of the House committee, laid out the problems with the existing arrangement asking for changes in the qualifying rules and the cap.
Smith had four essential concerns:
· Not enough H-1Bs given to hardcore in scientific field.
· "Foreign workers are receiving H-1B visas to work as fashion models, dancers, and as chefs, photographers, and social workers."
· The cap might come under pressure as the economy comes out of recession.
· Visa frauds need to be tackled.
The hearing a one-off, with no immediate follow up planned, neither a legislation nor a proposal. But it did capture the mood on the hill: H-1B was not out of the woods yet.
India would have to battle harder.