The new US Immigration Bill decoded
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The new US Immigration Bill decoded

Confused by all the hype surrounding the debate over the US bill. HT explains what it means.

business Updated: May 05, 2013 23:00 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

The US is attempting the first major overhaul of its immigration system since 1986. A new 800-page bill, put together by a group of Republican and Democratic senators -- the so-called "Gang of Eight," would make it easier for the highly-educated and skilled to become US citizens.

But it would also place restrictions on the iconic H and L visas used by Indian tech workers. Last year, 59% of all H-1B and 35% of all L-1 visas were issued to Indian nationals. And Indians have an enviable record with such visas: US embassy figures show that 90% of all H-1 cases result in the Indian getting the visa.

* Why is the Indian IT industry opposing the bill?
The bill will be damaging for the larger Indian outsourcing firms like a Wipro or an Infosys. It affects them negatively in three ways:
1. After 2016, there will be a ban on firms employing more than 50% of their workers on H and L visas. This will severely restrict the work of the biggest Indian IT firms.
2. Firms that have between 30 and 50% of their workforce on H and L visas will have pay $ 5000 per new worker they hire, significantly more than what they pay now.
3. Auditing and anti-fraud measures will be tightened for L visa employers. L visas are given for intra-company transfers.
4. However, the number of H!-B visas will increase from 65,000 to 110,000.

* How will it affect individual Indian IT workers going to the US?
A mixed bag for them. On one hand, it will reduce employment opportunities. On the other, it will make life much easier once they are in the US.

US based firms whose workforce is more than 15% H-1B workers will have to pay them US-level wages. Madeleine Sumption of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, "This will substantially increase the wage levels firms must meet, presumably pushing many out of the H-1B market." In the longer run, says says, "Indian tech workers who are still in India will have fewer opportunities to come to the US in the first place."

But for IT workers who make it to the US or are already there, the bill will make life much easier. Workers would also have as much as 30 days to seek new sponsors. At present, they have to leave the US the same day their sponsorship expires. H-1B workers' spouses would also be able to apply for the right to work, something presently denied them.

* How will it affect tech workers who want to become a US citizen?
The greatest gain for Indian IT workers will be a much simpler path to become a citizen. At present, going through the process of getting an H-1B visa, then a green card and finally US citizenship can take 10 years or more. Hundreds of thousands of Indian tech migrants are stuck in this loop.

The new bill accelerates this process. For example, an H-1B visa holder would be able to apply for a green card directly rather than requiring the permission of his US sponsor. Companies would be encouraged by the law to sponsor workers for green cards.

Faster citizenship vs H and L visa squeeze was the political trade-off, says a Washington lobbyist. "It was one of the unfortunate (for India) compromises that had to be made to insure that pathway to citizenship was included."

Vivek Wadhwa of Singularity University, a leading expert on immigrant entrepreneurship in the US, says that while the bill is good for IT workers already in the US, it clearly "targets Indian firms to appease anti-immigrant groups." But, he says, "the current draft is without doubt anti-Indian."

* Is the "Indian techie conquering Silicon Valley " story in danger?
The plot may change. The traditional model of Indian IT workers getting H-1B visas and a US sponsor and then using this to become a US citizen may be on it way out. Instead of temporary work visas, the path will now be to go through the student path or to directly work for large US tech firms -- Google rather than TCS.

Indian tech firms, says Sumption, will have to "substantially change their model." They will probably hire more US workers, sponsor more of their Indian imports for green cards or work remotely rather than onsite.

The Indian tech migrant, on the other hand, may start to see student and education visas as an easier way to become a citizen. Sumption says there will be "an increasing premium" on having a US degree or having US work experience as a path to citizenship. "International study may become a more important route into the US labour market as opposed to employment with and Indian tech firm."

* Did New Delhi play its cards right in influencing the bill?
Any immigration bill passed during an economic downturn will always come down hard on imported labour, even highly-skilled labour. The good part of the US debate was an acceptance that educated migrants should be encouraged to become citizens. The bad part was that the political system came down heavily on temporary workers.

India's failure, both by industry and by government, was to fail to prevent the US debate from being a trade-off between these two. Washington sources point to three factors. One, the White House no longer lobbies to help India. Two, the botched Indian civil nuclear liability bill has cost New Delhi much goodwill in the US Congress. Three, Indian diplomacy and industry are seen as having done a poor job countering these two negatives.

Ultimately, however, the decision of the US tech industry to bring Indian techies directly rather than through the outsourcing route was the biggest reason for the political shift on Capitol Hill.

* How likely is the so-called Gang of Eight version of the bill to pass the Congress?
This version had strong bipartisan support in the Senate. However, the lower house is much more ideological and issues like illegal migrants and the like have become controversial. The Boston bombers, both foreign students with engineering backgrounds, have made the clauses designed to make citizenship harder for well-educated migrants a source of problem.

There is no evidence of any partisan disagreement over the H and L visa provisions, however.

Wadhwa believes "it is too early to worry about the impact of this bill because it will undergo major revision and may not pass at all because it is trying to solve too many problems at once."

First Published: May 05, 2013 19:07 IST