Presidential overtures

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In his first State of the Union address President Trump dealt with several matters uppermost in the mind of Indian-Americans like hate crime and immigration, Ela Dutt reports

In his State of the Union (SOTU) speech Feb. 28, President Trump tried to apply a positive touch to many issues affecting Indians and Indian-Americans but experts and community observers say details are needed to evaluate the final impact on issues like immigration and healthcare.

Trump’s invoking Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the victim of a hate crime in Kansas on Feb. 22 by a white man, to denounce bigotry, renewed faith among some, including Democratic detractors pessimistic about the future of minorities.

However, very quickly, the attention within the community and nationally in the United States and India, shifted to Trump’s comments about adopting a “merit based” immigration system allowing higher skilled and educated people into the country to ostensibly allay the high cost of low-skilled workers who according to the President, drain the country’s resources.

Other issues that grabbed the Indian-American community’s attention was Obamacare on which Trump made contradictory statements about – calling for repealing and replacing it, at the same time, highlighting the need to keep the most popular aspects of the Affordable Care Act, such as insurance covering pre-existing conditions and insurance for children below the age of 26.

Kansas A “Hate Crime”

“Last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms,” Trump said as he launched into his speech in Congress, making also a reference to the hate directed against Jews.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla

“I am glad he condemned the murder publicly and glad he indicated we will unite against all hatred, including against the Indian American community,” Ohio state Republican lawmaker Niraj Antani told News India Times via a text message during the President’s speech.

Kuchibhotla was shot to death Feb. 22 by Adam Purinton, who shouted epithets, questioned the two young Indian men about their visas, and told them “Get out of my country.”

Kuchibhotla’s friend Alok Madasani, and an onlooker, Ian Grillot, who tried to stop the shooter, were injured.

The killing heightened concerns here and in India about racially biased crimes.

Across the aisle, Indian-American Democrats paused their caustic criticism of Trump to acknowledge his condemnation of hate and call for unity, with caveats.

“I appreciate that the President acknowledged the shooting in Kansas City upfront in his speech,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, told News India Times via email. Noting that words alone could not heal the wounds created by the senseless shooting, “It is my hope that President Trump takes actions to stop hate and bias-motivated crimes and ensures that full justice is done in the prosecution of this hate crime,” Khanna added.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, who has called for an investigation into the incident by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, told News India Times, “Acknowledging the senseless killing was a start.”

“I’m gratified by the necessary condemnation from the President although it should not have taken editorials and widespread criticism for him to express moral outrage over a hate crime,” said New Jersey’s only Indian-American State Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, a Democrat.

“The Kansas shooting was so deplorable and we’re glad President Trump started his speech referencing that and hate crime,” Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of News India Times and recipient of India’s Padma Shri award, said echoing a broad community sentiment.

K. Madhusudhana Sastry, father of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer who was shot and killed in the United States last week, performs last rites of his son during his funeral at a crematorium in Hyderabad, Feb. 28.

Mississippi resident Sampat Shivangi, president of the Indian American Forum for Political Education, also praised the President for taking note of the Kansas killing. “The Indian and Indian American community so also the rest of the world were relieved to (hear) his declaration that he is against any hate crime, which was eagerly awaited,” Shivangi said.

“Merit Based” Immigration

Very quickly, the implications of some of Trump’s other statements sunk in, most significant among them, the “merit-based” entry for immigrants which Trump touted as a better system. He held out the Canadian and Australian systems as examples of the kind of system he wants for the US. Canada has a points system that rewards higher skills and education, as well as any family links to the country.

“Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, will have many benefits: it will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families –including immigrant families – enter the middle class,” Trump said. He cited a 2013 National Academy of Sciences report which, he said, showed immigrants were a drain on the economy under the current system.

For Indians coming with high education levels for good paying jobs in America and for entrepreneurs looking to hire, the first problems are the limits on the number of people who can come to the U.S. and the long waits. Then there is the uncertainty: how long is the wait for green cards? Will an applicant get through the arbitrary lottery system for H-1B visas? Will the conditions for H-1B and entrepreneur visas be changed? Will the number of H1-B visas be cut down?

Experts who have worked with entrepreneurs and immigrants, many for Indians and Indian-Americans, look at all the uncertainty now and say “predictability” is the most important aspect in the immigration system.

If a reformed immigration system based on merit is designed well, it will remove the uncertainty by making the outcomes predictable.
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Whether it is Indian parents sending their kids to the U.S. for higher education or graduates or people already working here, they can plan their lives if the system is predictable.

If Trump’s idea mirrored the 2013 comprehensive immigration plan put forward by Republicans in the Senate, and would give Indians an edge, experts and others News India Times spoke to, believe.

Trump did not give any further details beyond mentioning the Canadian and Australian models. Any reform will face a long slog in Congress as various interests clash and try to shape it.

The merit-based system would change the demographics of immigration by giving higher skilled workers from India and China an edge, Professor Neil Ruiz, executive director of the Center for Law, Economics and Finance at George Washington University, told News India Times.

“Indian Americans are by far, highly skilled and a merit based system would favor Indians and Chinese,” Ruiz said. “But the devil is in the details.”

A merit-based green card system may also mitigate the situation that could arise from any possible cuts in H-1B visas.

Seventy percent of the 85,000 visas available are used by Indians, and less than a handful of major Indian outsourcing companies dominate. Unlike in his earlier speeches, Trump did not criticize the H1-B visa program in his SOTU speech.

“The merit-based system has good value for Indians, especially those on H-1Bs,” Dr. Parikh said. When there was a shortage of physicians in the U.S., he recalled, he came on a Special Category 3 visa. “We all came in the ‘70s on merit-based visas,” he said. “But I would reserve judgment on other impacts until more details emerge,” Parikh added.

Vivek Wadhwa, author and researcher on foreign skilled workers and the IT industry, said, “If America does adopt a merit based system, it will be good for skilled workers and boost innovation. It will also boost the economy. But we cannot close the doors to families. We must also support family reunification.”

“Overall, what I have heard from Trump is encouraging for skilled immigration. Even the proposals I have heard about H1-B visas going to the highest bidder could be good for Silicon Valley while being bad for the Indian body-shops that abuse these visas,” Wadhwa added.

However, there are signs of opposition to the Trump proposal. “Given what we have seen so far, I’m skeptical of any immigrations proposal put forth by the Trump administration,” said Krishnamoorthi.

Himself a tech entrepreneur before being elected Krishnamoorthi acknowledged serious reforms are needed to help more skilled immigrants come to the United States, such as eliminating the cap on the number of employment-based visas that can be granted to citizens of any particular countries, including India. However, “I think also it’s vital to preserve our legacy as a beacon of hope and opportunity for people throughout the world.”

What he said about the U.S. as a universal beacon of hope is resonating with advocacy groups that are highlighting the historical contributions of lower-skilled workers and their success stories in the land of opportunity since its founding.

“The argument is for a hybrid approach, a balanced approach,” Ruiz said.

However, neither Republicans nor President Trump can be seen increasing the overall number of immigrants, but the potential for Indians rises if country-quotas which right now favor smaller countries over India and China, are done away with.

The current Green Card system is highly problematic, Ruiz noted, with every country regardless of size being entitled to 7 percent of the total given. A bill (H.R. 213) sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in 2015, has bipartisan support and calls for eliminating per-country quotas. Ruiz said that if passed, it would complement the merit-based system.

The shift to a merit-based system would also favor those in Ivy League and other highly-regarded schools, and/or enrolled in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), posing a definite advantage for the thousands of H1-B and related visa holders from India (and China) seeking Green Cards.

Affordable Care Act

Indian-American physicians mostly agree that a revised version of Obamacare would go a long way in helping their patients and their practice. Those among them who work in inner cities want much of the Affordable Care Act to be preserved because it helps their patients, especially those in the Medicaid program.

Physicians, who form a significant proportion of the American medical community, generally welcomed what they see as President Trump’s effort to keep the “good parts” and change the ones they find troubling.

Dr. Parikh, who operates numerous clinics in the greater New York area, said he was pleased with the points President Trump made in his speech. “It is a good starting point to keep parts of Obamacare – like insurance companies having to cover pre-existing conditions, and children being in parents’ insurance plans until the age of 26,” he said. He also supported letting health insurance companies operate across state lines. “That will end the monopolies these companies have and increase competition. Premiums will go down for Indian-Americans.” Parikh also supported the idea of bringing down drug prices.

In earlier interviews, Dr. Seema Jain, past president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, and Vinod Shah of Maryland, agreed on the plus-points of Obamacare, but also noted similar problems as Dr. Parikh. Supporters of Obamacare including Dr. Manan Trivedi, president of the National Physicians Alliance, welcomed discussions on change. “But repealing without a better replacement would be devastating.” Trivedi warned.

Krishnamoorthi was skeptical Trump could deliver on his promise to replace Obamacare and still protect people with preexisting conditions, increase access for everyone and lower costs. “If the President creates a plan that can accomplish those goals, I will welcome it,” Krishnamoorthi said, but warned anything less would be a “disaster” not just for healthcare but for the economy and people.

His dire warning was endorsed by a physician on the frontlines of medical care for the vulnerable, Dr. Manik Chhabra, 35. “I see the changes being proposed (in ACA) as really a direct threat to my patients in inner Philadelphia,” said Chhabra, most of whom are impoverished.