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If H-1B is on the table for Modi-Trump talks, what will it be?

President Trump ordered a review of the visa programme in April to prevent its “abuse” and to ensure only the “most- skilled and highest-paid” applicants were processed successfully.

analysis Updated: Jun 22, 2017 09:27 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
H-1B visa,Narendra Modi,Donald Trump
Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold talks with US President Donald Trump in Washington on June 26 on a range of issues. (PTI)

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads out to the United States to meet President Donald Trump for talks next Monday, the key question being asked is whether he will address the new US administration’s belief and charge that Indian IT companies are using H-1B visas to displace American workers.

A top Indian trade official has said H-1B will be on the table when the two leaders meet, as it must be. But what will it be? “What will he ask Trump,” another Indian official, who is arguing for Modi to skip the vexatious issue, said recently, “that he should reverse his executive order?”

It won’t work. Support for reforming the H-1B non-immigrant visa system that allows US companies to hire highly skilled foreigners abroad and here from among those enrolled in advanced studies — subject to an annual cap of 85,000 — runs deep and wide in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

“I can’t imagine Trump standing in the way,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at Wilson Center, a think tank. He said he believes — as many in the Indian government agree and argue — “Modi will want this to be as positive a meeting as possible … I imagine he’ll avoid bringing up points that could lead to awkward silences”

But letting this administration’s deep suspicion of Indian IT companies — the White House has left no doubts about who it has in its crosshairs and has has called out Infosys, Tata and Cognizant — fester, and take root could inflict lasting damage on a major pillar of India’s $150 billion technology sector.

That cannot be an option either, even if it meant pressing a highly predictable man on a particularly thorny issue, and one he had railed about on campaign trail. India could present a a slightly different narrative, wrapped in numbers.

The Prime Minister could “stress that the movement of people between the US and India is a hallmark of the bilateral relationship and that this redounds to the benefit of both countries”, said Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert with Carnegie.

And that “predictability in any visa regime is important and future changes should not come as a surprise to Indian companies or Indian citizens”. That’s a sounder approach, and possibly the only one available to India, and one that could appeal to the businessman in Trump.

And, numbers. Modi could remind Trump of recent announcements by Infosys — of a tech hub in Indianapolis employing around 2,000 people; and by all the other tech giants such as Wipro, TCS and Cognizant ramping up local hirings.

President Trump ordered a review of the H-1B visa programme in April to prevent its abuse and to ensure only the “most-skilled and highest-paid” applicants were processed successfully.

His administration has also tweaked existing rules to slow down the process and raise the bar for qualifying for “speciality occupations and threatened against fraud and abuse and invited any feeling discriminated against to complain to hotline numbers announced by the US department of justice.

The Indian IT sector, which will be following the H-1B part of the talks more closely than others, would like to see its concerns conveyed to the president but is also prepared for a complete miss as well, in the long-term interest of the relationship. “This will be their first meet ever. I am not hearing that there will be any big deals/agreements announced,” an officials with a a mjor IT firm said on background, “Bringing up thorny issues in the absence of other more positive news … could set the relationship off on the wrong foot”.

“These are long term issues and we have to think toward building long term productive relationships,” he added.

First Published: Jun 21, 2017 11:04 IST