Unless the conservative wing within the House Republican Party succeeds in scuttling it, President Barack Obama is likely to sign a comprehensive new immigration law this summer, the first signature legislation of his second term. The legislation, the second major immigration law in 27 years, will have a far-reaching impact. The potential legalisation of more than 11 million illegal immigrants would, no doubt, raise the living standard of those people and also boost the American economy.
Outside of the United States and Hispanic America, which is where most undocumented immigrants came from, few nations have as much interest in the immigration law as India. While most of the debate here is centered on the pathway to legalisation for illegal immigrants, the aspect of immigration reform that has received most attention in India is a provision related to H-1B and L-1 visas.
More than a million skilled employees from India may have come to the US for work through these two visa categories since 2000. Additionally, several hundred thousands came here on dependent H-4 and L-2 visas during the period. From 2003 to 2011, more than 459,000 Indians came to the United States for work on H-1B visas, which constitute nearly 48% of all the visas granted under this category, according to an analysis of US Citizenship and Immigration Services data by the American Bazaar Online. China the second largest recipient of H-1B sent fewer than 90,000 during the same period.
The bill that is currently being debated in the Senate, which was sponsored by eight influential senators known as the Gang of Eight, places a number of restrictions on companies, as temporary workers constitute a significant percentage of their US workforce. Under the bill, their visa fees will go up, making them less competitive in the US market.
Obviously, the Indian technology industry is steadfastly opposing these provisions, and the Indian Ambassador to the United States Nirupama Rao has spoken forcefully in support of the Indian industry, as has the US India Business Council. In an op-ed in USA Today in April, Rao forcefully defended Indian companies’ practice of bringing employees from India to the United States. “They provide the continuity and institutional knowledge required to serve commercial and governmental clients well – in the same way that Americans often staff the foreign offices of their own corporations,” Rao wrote.
To understand the tight spot Indian firms are in, the larger context under which this legislation may be enacted needs to be recognised.
Decks were cleared for the law the moment exit poll results were out on November 6 last year, showing that the growing Hispanic community had voted overwhelmingly against Republican nominee. Ever since H-1B visas were introduced in the early 1990s, there has been a protectionist constituency â€” which includes some members of Congress â€” that has opposed this visa program. Many opposed H-1B on the grounds that companies have abused the visas.
Nonetheless, H-1B has been the staple for US tech giants to hire the best talents from around the world, and the tech industry has been trying for years to persuade Congress to increase the quota.
The Gang of Eight bill does increase the visa cap limit from the current 85,000 to 195,000. But to placate the opponents of H-1B and L-1, the bill has provisions to penalise companies that are primarily dependent on these visas, which happen to be the Indian industry.