By: Neeta Lal

The Trump administration’s plans to overhaul the H-1B visa program in particular – including a recent proposal to revoke an Obama-era rule that extends work authorization to the spouses of HI-B visa holders – are spreading alarm among Indian expatriate workers who constitute almost 70 per cent of all H-1B holders in the US.

As with so many of US President Donald Trump’s other international fiascos including cancelling the TransPacific Partnership trade agreement and menacing the North American Free Trade Agreement, the threatened cuts in the HI-B program are expected to do more damage to US industry than aiding it, circumscribing the ability to operate in the US of Indian companies which hire tens of thousands of domestic workers.

Although there have been complaints of misuses, as when the Disney Corp. fired 200 domestic workers in June 2017 and attempted to replace them with lower-paid immigrants, in fact Silicon Valley has simply been able to find enough skilled US workers – a testimony to the country’s collapsing education system – to fill crucial jobs.

The H-1B visa, a highly sought-after work permit, has thousands of top-notch professionals vying for the program’s 85,000 visas each year. Valid for three years and extendable for another three, it is the most common visa route for highly skilled foreigners to find work in US companies.

In the runup to the 2016 election, US President Donald Trump claimed that Americans were living through what he called the “greatest jobs theft in the history of the world” as US companies outsourced jobs to countries like India, China, Mexico and Singapore. Hence, one of his key election promises was to open every job opportunity for Americans even if it meant forcing local companies to sack qualified migrant workers.

In April this year, the president followed up on his words by signing the “Buy American, Hire American” legislation with the promise of bringing jobs back to the country. 

“This legislation demonstrates our compassion for struggling American families who deserve an immigration system that puts their needs first and that puts America first,” he said. Trump added that a stricter visa regime would not only restore America’s competitive edge in the 21st century but also the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens.

The H-1B program is one that Trump has focused on for reform, coming down heavily on supposed abusers who use it to replace American workers. As a move to check that abuse, in its latest regulation, the Department of Homeland Security stated recently that it is “proposing to remove from its regulations certain H-4 spouses of H-1B non-immigrants as a class of aliens eligible for employment authorization.”

Experts say the move will have an outsized impact on Indian workers and their families, particularly spouses of HI-B visa holders. The latter will be rendered practically jobless and inactive and will become fully dependent on their spouses for sustenance.

Since 2015, the spouses of HI-B or high-skilled visa holders awaiting green cards have been eligible to work in the US on H-4 dependent visas, under a rule introduced by the previous Obama administration. In 2016, more than 41,000 of H-4 visa holders were issued work authorization. This year till June more than 36,000 H-4 visa holders were issued work authorization according to official records.

“Such proposals are restrictive for potential immigrants and skilled people,” says Abhijeet Sheikh, HR Consultant with Reliance Capital, one of the country’s largest financial services company. “The visa restrictions under Trump have hung like a Damocles’ sword over the Indian tech workers and his latest proposal further accentuates the restrictions and stress.”

This contrasts sharply with the Obama regime’s embrace of skilled Indian workers and their families. In a ruling in February 2015, the Obama government permitted spouses of H-1B visa-holders to take up jobs in the US on H-4 visa as dependents. This was a long pending demand of the industry and was meant to reduce “stress” on the immigrants.

“I couldn’t work and I realized I did not have a sense of purpose,” Meghna Domani, who left her advertising job in Mumbai to marry and move to the US was quoted in Quartz as saying. Damani said that she battled severe depression during this time, a manifestation of the pressure that many H-4 spouses feel after years of remaining unemployed just to be able to live with their partners. “I wanted to just die. To no longer feel this guilt, this wastefulness. To no longer feel like a burden.”

According to published reports, Indians hold nearly 80 percent of the 125,000 H-4 visas issued in 2015 alone. Women account for 90 percent of all H-4 visas. More than 41,000 of these spousal work authorizations were approved in the year ended September 2016, according to Wall Street Journal (paywall). During 2016, more than 36,000 applications were approved through June.

Though New Delhi has avoided a direct confrontation with Washington on the issue so far, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in October did flag the H1B visa issue as a “strong concern” during a meeting with a visiting US Congressional delegation in New Delhi. 

Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has observed that Indian IT companies are not stealing American jobs but are in fact creating employment there. “Our IT companies are an asset for the US. The American administration should know that our companies don’t steal their jobs, but they are creating jobs. We have conveyed our concern to the highest US authorities,” he told India Today.

The Confederation of Indian Industry has also put out a report, saying that Indian firms have created more than 113,000 jobs in the US and invested nearly US$18 billion in the country. The CII report: ‘Indian Roots, American Soil’ also shows that Indian companies have also contributed US$147 million towards corporate social responsibility and US$588 million as research and development expenditures in the US.

According to the report, quoted in Mint newspaper, 100 Indian companies employ 113,423 people across 50 US states and the total value of tangible investments made by these firms crosses USD 17.9 billion.  The top five states in which Indian companies have generated maximum employment are New Jersey (8,572 jobs), Texas (7,271 jobs), California (6,749 jobs), New York (5,135 jobs) and Georgia (4,554 jobs).

The top five states in which Indian companies have contributed the highest foreign direct investment are New York (USD1.57 billion), New Jersey (USD1.56 billion), Massachusetts (USD931 million), California (USD542 million) and Wyoming (USD435 million). The CII report further said that the average amount of investment received from Indian companies per state/territory is USD 187 million.

Be that as it may, Trump’s visa crackdown has had an interesting fallout. According to an analysis by consulting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Pvt Ltd, it has resulted in a reverse brain drain with more and more Indians living in the US wanting a job back home after Trump became president. According to Deloitte, the number of Indians in the US searching for jobs in India has skyrocketed over 10-fold between December and March. There were approximately 600 US-based Indians seeking jobs in India in December 2016. By the end of March 2017, the number had surged by approximately 7,000, Deloitte analysis said.

Not only that. Trump’s anathema to migrant workers is also driving more and more well-qualified Indians into the arms of Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau next door. Trudeau’s new `Global Skills Strategy’ — an initiative to incorporate well-qualified migrant workers into his economy — is finding resonance with educated migrant communities. Thousands of Indian IT professionals are thus now leveraging Canada’s new fast-track visa programmed to move to Canadian shores.

The irony is clearly lost on Trump who never tires of boasting about being a savvy businessman.

New Delhi-based Neeta Lal, an editor & journalist, tweets at @neeta_com