The US administration has sent a new legislation to Capitol Hill that does away with country caps on visas, allows spouses and children to immigrate and work and turns Trump-era immigration restrictions on their head. It faces a small hurdle, though – it needs at least 10 Republican Senators to support the Democrats to become law.
US President Joe Biden has got down with alacrity to fulfilling his election promise of easing immigration norms and relax rules governing the issue of Green Cards and H1B visas. This move will benefit millions of illegal immigrants in the US as well as hundreds of thousands of professionals across the world, including IT professionals from India.
Last Thursday, the new US administration introduced the Citizenship Act of 2021 to provide an eight-year path to citizenship to about 11 million immigrants to the US. But it is by no means a done deal yet.
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A lot of commentary on this new legislation has dwelt on how this will benefit the Indian IT sector and professionals working therein. It will. But less discussed has been the point on how this will enable American companies retain their global technological edge and competitiveness at a time when US dominance over high technology has increasingly come under challenge from Chinese companies. But more on that later.
To become law, the new legislation, which is staunchly supported by the Democrats, but equally strongly opposed by the Republicans, would need at least 10 GoP Senators to vote in its favour, which looks a difficult ask at this moment.
Reuters reported that the proposed law will qualify immigrants for Green Cards, which allows permanent residency in the US, after five years if they pay taxes and meet some other norms. After this period, such Green Card holders will become eligible to apply for citizenship.
In a long statement issued by the White House, Biden said: “Immigration is an irrefutable source of our strength and is essential to who we are as a nation. The last four years of misguided policies have exacerbated the already broken immigration system and highlighted the critical need for reform… The legislation I sent to Congress will bring about much needed change to an immigration system where reform is long overdue… It will modernize our legal immigration pathways and create an earned path to citizenship for so many – including Dreamers, farmworkers and TPS holders. These are not Democratic or Republican priorities – but American ones. I’ve laid out my vision for what it’ll take to reform our immigration system and I look forward to working with leaders in Congress to get this done.”
As part of his “Make American Great Again” plan, the previous Trump administration had tried to bludgeon US immigration laws into a shape that would please his constituency, which opposed easier immigration norms and blamed immigrants for job losses and high unemployment among American workers.
With this in mind, Trump had suspended, among other things, the H1B visa programme, that US and Indian IT companies mainly used to send professionals to work sites in that country.
He had also made it significantly more difficult for Indians to gain US citizenship by placing what many experts felt were arbitrary and unrealistic wage floors and higher qualification criteria for hiring foreign workers. Further, the previous US administration had clamped down on issuing work permits to the spouses of foreign workers and also made it much tougher for professionals to move with their families to the US.
The issue had been summed up very well by Senator Mike Lee from Utah when he told the Senate last August: “If you're born anywhere else, anywhere else other than China; let's say in Ghana, Sweden, Indonesia, basically any other country other than India your application will be considered immediately. This sort of discrimination is simply inconsistent with the principles of a merit-based immigration system and with our founding principles and the principles that unite us as Americans.”
The proposed new law provides relief on all these counts by providing work permits to spouses / dependents of H1B visa holders and also makes it easier for their children to immigrate as well.
The H1B is a visa that allows US employers to temporarily employ workers from a foreign country in specialised functions that requires at a bachelor's degree or relevant work experience. These visas are issued initially for a period of three years, which can be extended for another three years. Following this, the visa holders usually have to reapply afresh.
There is a limit on the number of such visas that can be issued each year – which the US authorities decide each year – and a cap on the number of recipients from each country. In India’s case, the country cap was set at 7 per cent of all H1B visas issued.
Under Trump, the US also greatly restricted the issue of L1 visas that many companies use to send their employees to the US. These are reserved for experienced, existing employees of companies that plan to launch or expand operations in the US.
The Indian subsidiaries of US tech giants and Indian IT companies are the biggest beneficiaries of both the H1B and the L-1 visas and account for 23 per cent of the latter.
Almost every large US tech company had opposed Trump’s immigration policies. Prominent among those who went public with their opposition were Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
“Immigration has contributed immensely to America’s economic success, making it a global leader in tech, and also Google the company it is today. Disappointed by today's proclamation. We’ll continue to stand with immigrants and work to expand opportunity for all,” Pichai had tweeted soon after the order suspending H1B visas was issued.
Now, with the new administration taking the first step towards making good on its pre-election promise of easing immigration rules, some of that disappointment could be redressed.
One estimate says as many as 60 per cent of the 800,000 waitlisted Green Card aspirants are Indians. Actually, Biden's decision helps US Big Tech as much as it does Indian IT firms and techies.
That's because Indians now have many more options apart from the US to choose from – literally a problem of plenty. They can immigrate to and work in the UK, the EU, UAE, South East Asia and even Australia.
Many of these countries are easing immigration norms in order to attract skilled immigrants, of whom Indians form a significant proportion. For example, since coming to power, UK Prime Minister has eased immigration norms for Indian students. Then, The United Arab Emirates has also, for the first time, opened a path to citizenship for foreigners. This, too, is expected to open up another very attractive option for Indian professionals looking to relocate to a foreign country.
And the fact that US Big Tech is lobbying the US government to ease visa and resident status for Indians also points to the fact that America is critically short of talent in several high-tech fields and needs Indians to fill up crucial vacancies that help the US retain its technological edge over rivals such as China.
Thus, the proposed new legislation, if it becomes law, will provide a win-win solution to a potentially intractable problem for both US Big Tech, the $194-billion Indian IT sector and Indian tech professionals.