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Anti-immigrant song

Slashing the number of H-1B visas will affect the US economy badly. Highly skilled immigrants are not part of the problem but part of the solution to America’s current economic woes. Nitin Madan writes.

india Updated: Feb 17, 2009 12:01 IST

As the US Congress approved the $787 billion economic stimulus package initiated by President Barack Obama on Friday, proposals by Senators Bernie Sanders and Charles Grassley placed stricter limits on banks and other firms taking taxpayer bailouts that use the H-1B visa programme. In other words, that will prohibit companies that have received bailout funds from hiring and retaining skilled foreign-born workers. This measure will disproportionately affect US-based Indians on H1-B visas.

India remains the largest provider of skilled H1-B workers to American companies. It is also the largest provider of foreign graduate students to America’s colleges, particularly in the crucial areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. However, the amendment in the new law may change things as India’s economy continues to grow and Congressional support for employment-based immigration erodes. Many American companies are planning to expand hiring in locations such as Bangalore and Beijing. By resorting to protectionist and anti-immigrant actions, Congress will only accelerate the current economic contraction in the US.

Consider the following facts. According to the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAB), the 12 largest recipients of bailout funds hired a negligible number of H1-B visa-holders in 2007. Bank of America employed 210,000 people in 2007 and received petitions for 66 new H-1B visa holders, representing 0.03 per cent of its workforce. Many of these H1-B employees are graduates of US universities, some have received scholarships to study in the US. Forcing these brightest from a global workforce to leave the US not only disrupts the operations of companies where they are employed, but also forces these companies to grapple with critical skill shortages. Such anti-immigrant actions can sow fear, uncertainty and doubt among other highly skilled immigrants currently employed by healthy companies.

Highly skilled immigrants are not part of the problem but part of the solution to America’s current economic woes. There are over 500,000 such legal immigrants stuck in backlogs in a multi-year wait for a green card. While these individuals remain in a bureaucratic limbo, they postpone decisions to purchase homes and consumer durables. This is a source of pent-up demand that the US desperately needs to tap in a slowing economy.

Legal immigration of highly skilled individuals is not a zero-sum game. Many talented immigrants have started successful businesses that have employed scores of US-born citizens. Anurag Jain, a former H1-B visa-holder, has been legally residing in the US for the last 10 years. He recently launched a Seattle-based internet company “Our situation is very uncertain because of the current economic conditions. If my wife loses her job with Microsoft, will be forced to move overseas due to the delays in the processing of our green card applications. I am already thinking of expanding my company overseas instead of building up a stronger base in the Seattle area,” says Jain.

There is a growing recognition in Congress that something needs to be done to arrest the departure of such individuals who often take their innovations to other countries and then compete with the US. Unfortunately, attempts at reform have stalled as this issue is held hostage by those in the US Congress who need a bargaining chip for other issues.

US President Obama has stated that one of the primary goals of his administration is to create 3 million jobs during its first term. His administration could use all the help that it can get from the US Congress. However, the Congress must resist the temptation to resort to nativist actions and show genuine leadership that this land of immigrants deserves.

Nitin Madan is a volunteer with the non-profit organisation, Immigration Voice

First Published: Feb 17, 2009 11:53 IST