The US must fix its immigration system

ByManjari Chatterjee Miller
Mar 14, 2023 08:05 PM IST

Streamlining the process for Indian talent will enable the US to increase its domestic capacity and effectively counter China through a stronger US-India relationship

In the last decade, India has gone from a country with which the United States (US) had an uneasy, prickly relationship to one of its most important strategic and economic partners. A significant reason for this change is their shared perception of China as an enormous threat and competitor. Consequently, the relationship has focused on countering that threat through cooperation via the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) on health and disaster preparedness, mutual defence agreements, and emerging technologies. Yet one of the most important tools available to the US to counter China through this partnership is in jeopardy: The US immigration policy vis-à-vis Indian citizens.

The US relies on skilled immigrants to maintain a competitive advantage (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The US relies on skilled immigrants to maintain a competitive advantage (Shutterstock)

The history of Indian immigration to the US dates to the 19th century. Till World War II, Indian immigrants were low-skilled migrant workers. However, this pattern changed by the mid-20th century when Indians flocked to the US to study or work white-collar jobs. Today, Indians constitute the second-largest immigrant group in the US after Mexicans and the highest-earning ethnic group in the country. But decades of legal and skilled Indian immigration have run into structural and bureaucratic problems, jeopardising the US’s higher education and research needs, particularly in the science and technology sectors.

Since 1965, Indians have immigrated to the US through three pathways. The first is through temporary work visas (H-1Bs), which are employer-sponsored and issued to highly skilled workers. Currently, Indian nationals receive most of those visas. The second is through temporary student visas that bring students to study. In 2021-22, for example, Indian students made up the second-largest coterie (199,182) of international students, with the largest coterie (290,086) coming from China. The third is converting those temporary visas into green cards, allowing recipients to stay in the US and pursue a path to citizenship.

All three routes of legal Indian immigration have important implications for the US’s strategic competition with China. The US has relied on skilled immigrants for years to maintain a competitive advantage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This reliance has become more acute since the mid-2000s, as China has been graduating more STEM PhDs than the US. Even more worrying, a recent report commissioned by the US department of energy found that since 2010, the US has been losing its competitive edge in basic science research to China. This loss of competitiveness is partly due to immigration issues. The US, which traditionally “benefited from a steady stream of talented young scientists” emigrating to the country, is seeing this supply dry up, thanks to uncertainty about visas for foreign students and visiting scholars. Indian information technology (IT) workers have also been the backbone of Silicon Valley, with many companies sponsoring those workers for H-1B visas and green cards. Finally, international students at US universities not only boost science research (they make up 74% of electrical engineering students and 72% of computer and information science students), but they also bring in billions of dollars in tuition, helping to defray costs for US students. Chinese students are still the largest group of international students in the US. Still, their numbers have drastically declined since the pandemic as the US issued fewer visas due to worries about espionage and Chinese government influence. Universities have, therefore, been hoping for Indian students, the second-largest contingent of international students, to make up the shortfall.

The issue is that the legal pathways of immigration for Indians have run into myriad problems. To begin with, the wait times to get an interview for a visa, whether for studies or work, are absurdly long. For example, applicants at the US consulate general in Mumbai can wait up to 351 calendar days for an H-1B visa interview. And, of course, since these wait times are for interviews, they include neither the subsequent processing time for the visa to be issued nor a guarantee that it will be issued.

The H-1B visa programme has also become restricted. The numerical limit is so low — only 85,000 new H-1B petitions for employers per year, or 0.05% of the US labour force — that last April, US Citizenship and Immigration Services rejected 80% of applicants. The green card system is also massively backed up. Currently, the Cato Institute estimates that 1.4 million employment-based cases for permanent residency are winding their way through the system. This backlog is 10 times the actual number of green cards issued, meaning that two hundred thousand skilled Indian immigrants are likely to die before they can receive a green card — and 90,000 children, mostly Indian, will “age out” of the system. That is, they will turn 21 and become ineligible to receive a green card through their parent, making them unauthorised immigrants if they continue to reside in the US.

The recent layoffs that have roiled the tech industry have compounded these issues. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon have laid off nearly 20,000 IT workers since November 2022. About 40% of those skilled workers are Indians who now have to scramble to find another position in the allotted timeframe the temporary work visa gives them. Otherwise, they will have to leave the country or stay on illegally.

As a result of these issues, many skilled Indian workers are now looking to other countries. Canada, for example, has been attracting Indian students in droves, issuing many more visas than the US and offering a more realistic pathway to permanent residence and citizenship. Unfortunately, at the same time, illegal Indian immigration to the US is increasing. Last year, illegal Indian immigration increased by 109%.

Immigration law reforms have languished in Congress for decades with no bipartisan avenues for progress. But there is bipartisan consensus on both maintaining India as a crucial strategic partner for the US and regarding China as a strategic competitor. So, addressing the issues in immigration policy that are affecting the US’s ability to attract and retain skilled Indian immigrants and maintain a competitive edge over China should be a no-brainer.

Manjari Chatterjee Miller is senior fellow, CFR, and associate professor, international relations, Boston University The full piece originally appeared on the Renewing America blog at Cfr.orgThe views expressed are personal

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