H-1B visa debate: In modern diplomacy, self-interest rules | Chanakya
There are several Indian sub-cultures in the United States. The farmers from Punjab who migrated to different parts of California decades ago. The students who went to study and stayed back at a time when the immigration regime wasn’t as harsh as it is now. That worked out well for them and their adopted country — the fact that there are so many Indians in senior executive positions in US companies, including some in corner offices, can be attributed to this. Then there are the tech workers with H-1B visas, many of whom see the US as home and who, along with their families, have built their lives and careers in that country. There are several others, but it is the third group that is the focus of this piece.
First, the numbers. Between 2007 and 2017, the US received 3.4 million applications for H-1B visas. Of this, 2.1 million were from Indians. The US granted 2.6 million of these, a 76.47% hit rate. No country-specific details on the number of visas granted are available, but one can calculate from this that around 1.6 million Indians were granted H-1B visas. Technology workers, who met the “specialty position” criterion required for such visas, were almost exclusively the beneficiaries of this. As were their spouses, usually on dependent H4 visas, and children. Indeed, some of the children were born in the US, and are, therefore, US citizens.
The H-1B visa allows a person to stay in the US for six years. Time spent outside the country, even on holidays, doesn’t count. So, an Indian with an H-1B visa who visits his parents in Chennai for three weeks over Christmas and New Year can add that time to his stay in the US. There are other ways in which these visas can be extended — including pending applications for a Green Card, which effectively grants a person the right to be a permanent resident in the US without being a citizen. It is likely that some of the 1.6 million Indians granted H-1B visas since 2007 have already acquired Green Cards or become citizens of the US.
The H1B visa, and another a little like it, the L1, have become flashpoints in the backlash in the US against immigrant workers. Both Indian companies with business in the US and large US technology firms have benefited from the expertise of such workers, but there has also been criticism that, in some instances, these visas have just been used to get lower-paid foreign technology workers to replace highly-paid Americans.
There has been some misuse of the H-1B visa regime by Indian companies and workers, but, in general, the Indian tech workers in the US on such visas are good, honest people (except when it comes to visas in some cases) who respect the rule of the law, are upstanding members of the community, and, more importantly, outstanding examples of the American Dream .
Every US administration for the past decade-and-half has made noises about cracking down on H-1B s, but none has made as much as the current Trump administration. In recent days, the Indian community in the US has been roiled by news that the visa regime may be changed to ensure that those H1B visa holders whose Green Card, or other applications are being processed, can’t stay beyond six years in the US. That could affect between 500000 and 750000 H-1B visa holders according to the media reports, including in this publication. Accounting for their spouses and children who are not already US citizens, the overall number of Indians affected could be anything around 1.5 million. Last month, there were reports that the Trump administration could end a rule that allows the spouses of those with H1-B visas (those on H4 dependent visas) to work in the US, a change that was made only in 2015 after much lobbying by and to much acclaim from the expatriate technology worker community.
If the Trump administration goes ahead with these plans, it could mean the end of the American Dream for an entire generation of Indian technology workers. It could disrupt the lives of their families, in the US, and back home in India. And it could also affect the business models of large Indian technology outsourcing firms, although many claims that their dependence on H-1B visa holders isn’t as high as it was in the 2000s.
Despite opposition from influential Indian lobbies in the US, the Indian government itself, and large technology companies including Google and Microsoft (both headed by Indians who have become US citizens), it is likely that President Donald Trump will carry on with his plans. Cracking down on immigrant workers taking American jobs was one of his campaign promises and it is possible he will try to follow through on it.
Interestingly, news of the Trump administration’s latest plan on H-1B visas came the same week as its fusillade against Pakistan for aiding and abetting terror groups, and, eventually, the complete stoppage of US aid to that country. This development should cheer India, almost as much as the H-1B development should disappoint it. India has long hoped that the US, one of Pakistan’s closest allies, would get tough with a country which it sees as a supporter and instigator of terror groups targeting India.
Then, that’s the way of modern diplomacy. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. It’s a lesson India would do well to learn (and there are some signs it is doing that) as it looks out for its own interests.