Modi missed putting the ball in US court in his meeting with Trump

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs US President Donald Trump after giving a joint press statement at the White House, Washington DC, June 26, 2017. Jay Mandal/On Assignment.

NEW YORK – So, the 800-pound-gorilla in the room – the H-1B visa and other work visas which are the lifeline of India’s remittances from the United States, not to speak of alleviating a looming domestic jobs crisis in the tech industry – was totally sidelined in the discussions and bonhomie Prime Minister Narendra Modi had with President Donald at the White House.

Trump was, no doubt, fine with that status quo; happy too, with Modi singing paeans of ‘Make America Great Again’.

Modi, however, missed a trick or two, to turn the tricky issue of transnational jobs to India’s advantage by announcing new measures out of the box, which would have made sense to both countries.

I’ve written earlier in my columns, it would be best for Modi and the Indian delegation to avoid raking up controversy by bringing to the fore issues of legal immigration and work visas, at the risk of prodding the nasty side of Trump to rear up – in the forms of tweets, if nothing else. That Modi accomplished.

However, Modi should have taken a leaf out of his past speeches to the Indian Diaspora in the United States, where he endeared himself to the NRI/PIO community by announcing a slew of ‘gifts’ to benefit them, including life-long visa to travel to India, doing away with the procedure of reporting to local police during long stays, merging of PIO-OCI cards, apart from new flights to India.

One positive announcement by Modi which would have gone down well with the Trump administration, surprised them, made national headlines here, would have been India’s willingness to give work permits to spouses of American workers in India – as a mark of respect for Trump’s initiative for American workers – as well as one-year work training permit visa to American students who graduate from Indian universities.

The Trump administration is at present in the process of trying to dismantle most of Obama administration’s executive orders and authorizations, including the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) work permit to some spouses of H-1B workers, who are on H-4 visa. That move may come soon.

There are pending lawsuits on reducing the Optional Practical Training (OPT) for F-1 students, in STEM fields; some foreign students in STEM fields get as much as three years to work under OPT after graduating from an accredited university in the US. That may be targeted too, later.

India’s kind gesture towards spouses of American workers in India would have likely given pause to the Trump administration in their mission to eliminate work permits of H-4 visa holders – most of whom are from India; apart from posing diplomatic challenges, coming on the heels of Modi’s visit.

India would have managed to squarely put the ball on the US court.

On the matter of H-1B visa, there’s not much the Indian government can do, despite all the rhetoric and haranguing by opposition parties back home.

There are several bipartisan immigration reform bills in the US Congress, supported by Republicans and Democrats, which calls for setting up higher salary scales for high-skilled workers coming to work in the US, in accordance with industry standards. It’s more than likely one of those bills is going to pas later this year or early next year, when immigration reform comes on the table.

Subsequently, India would see a big drop in emigration of tech workers; there would be a steep drop in next year’s H-1B applications from the top Indian IT service companies, including Infosys, TCS, Tech Mahindra, and the US-based Cognizant.

However, what Modi and the Indian delegation could have done to put across the benefit to the US economy through H-1B visa workers – which the Indian government has harped on – would have been to delineate the detrimental effect to the US economy when legal immigration capsizes, and H-1B and L visa workers in the US are forced to return home.

According to US rules, any foreign worker who has legally worked in the US for 10 years, decides to return home to his country of origin, is entitled to receive all Social Security taxes he’s paid in the course of that decade-long work.

If India had pointed out some numbers, to the effect that, assuming 100,000 Indian workers on H-1B visa, who have worked for 10 years, are forced to leave the US, pull out their Social Security, what it would mean for the US economy, the Trump administration would see plenty of merit in the case of their staying put in the US.

What India should really talk about is that the issue of H-1B visa is not just about new workers coming to work in the US. It’s also about the welfare of workers who are already here.

There’s already concern in sectors of the economy after the Trump administration’s decision to revoke an entrepreneurial visa plan hatched by the Obama administration – welcomed by Silicon Valley – which would have allowed foreign entrepreneurs to set up companies in the US. It would have likely added tens of thousands of top paying jobs immediately.

The general consensus in Indian American business circles is that the Trump administration is already on an overkill mode in the name of protecting American jobs. It’s slowly hurting the US, not really helping it.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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