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Home / Analysis / The precarious status of H-1B visa holders in the US

The precarious status of H-1B visa holders in the US

Some sort of restrictions could be imposed even within weeks. In the proclamation, Trump directed the secretaries of labour and homeland security to review various visa programmes and recommend appropriate measures

analysis Updated: Jun 06, 2020 19:37 IST
Frank F Islam
Frank F Islam
H-1B was a big target for Trump in 2016, who repeatedly criticised it during the presidential campaign
H-1B was a big target for Trump in 2016, who repeatedly criticised it during the presidential campaign(Reuters)

United States (US) President Donald Trump recently signed a new presidential proclamation that imposed a 60-day ban on issuing Green Cards to certain immigrants. India’s information technology (IT) industry and hundreds of thousands of H-1B visa holders in the US — a significant majority of whom are Indian nationals — heaved a huge sigh of relief: The proclamation did not eliminate the 65,000 H-1B visas for fiscal year 2021.

However, H-1B workers, who number more than half a million, are not out of the woods yet. It is unlikely that they will be, till the economy picks up steam, or, at the very least, until all the ballots are counted after the presidential election on November 3.

Some sort of restrictions could be imposed even within weeks. In the proclamation, Trump directed the secretaries of labour and homeland security to review various visa programmes and recommend appropriate measures, “and ensure the prioritisation, hiring, and employment of United States workers”.

Even if no additional measures are implemented, the H-1B community is living in fear of job loss and the thought of having to leave the country. If the economy doesn’t turn the corner, anywhere from 20% to 25% of H-1B employees could lose their jobs, according to one estimate.

Even if the gradual reopening of the economy results in some sort of recovery, there is no question the post-coronavirus pandemic terrain will be challenging for the Indian IT sector in the US. With the health care infrastructure overwhelmed by the pandemic and the economy in the middle of a recession, the upcoming presidential election, which is less than six months away, will be fought largely on these two issues. And jobs, 30 million of them having vanished, will be at the front and centre of the campaign for both sides.

H-1B was a big target for Trump in 2016, who repeatedly criticised it during the presidential campaign. He once vowed to “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labour programme”, and make it “an absolute requirement to hire American
workers first for every visa and immigration programme” without any exception.

But once in power, Trump largely avoided talking about the H-1B programme. The one major action he took was an executive order signed just three months after swearing-in as the 45th president of the US. That was the “Buy American and Hire American” order, which directed federal agencies to “propose new rules and issue new guidance” to “protect the interests of” US workers.

During the first three years of Trump’s presidency, the US economy created more than 6.5 million jobs, which weakened the argument that H-1B workers are depriving US citizens of jobs. But now, with more than 33 million jobs vanishing in less than three months, the voices of H-1B critics are resonating more than ever.

With his management of the coronavirus pandemic diminishing his re-election prospects significantly, one shouldn’t be surprised if Trump returns to his 2016 self during the campaign.

There is a big difference between then and now, however. In 2016, it was all rhetoric from an insurgent campaigner; now, being the president, he has the tools to implement what he preached four years ago.

In the meantime, H-1B workers and the Indian IT industry should pray for the best but expect and be prepared for the worst.

Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC.
The views expressed are personal
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