NEW YORK – It’s not the first time, and likely, not be the last either, at least as far as negotiations with the Trump administration on business and bilateral issues are concerned: whenever India earnestly tries to engage and broker a deal with the US through top officials, especially on visa matters, fortify itself against potential damage from an abrasive move on Capitol Hill that may dent relations and spook remittances, they find that a breach has been ordered surreptitiously from the White House. Like in the aftermath of a drone attack, India is left to contend with the extent of the damage done.
The latest instance is new tough rules on the vexatious H-1B visa and L visas, which may make it hard for existing and new workers on those visas to get an extension after the first three years of work.
Two of India’s top ministers, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, had in recent visits to the US, implored several top Trump officials not to take negative steps to curb or hinder the flow of IT and engineering workers from India, in keeping with broad industry demand.
The rhetoric has a robotic monotone to it. In the recent past, since President Donald Trump assumed office, on each and every Indian official’s visit, or on the sidelines of international meets, the issue of H-1B visa crops up shining bright.
It’s almost as if unless a satisfactory dialogue on the H-1B visa is initiated by ministers and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi – even if the purpose is futile – somebody, somewhere in India will feel chagrined the Indian government is not doing enough to preserve the business interests of the wealthy IT service industry, and mitigate the unemployment crisis of the educated workforce, who seek to work overseas.
However, there’s more to it than just free trade: India’s bilateral ties with the US is closely associated with a robust growth in numbers of the Indian Diaspora. Not only is the Indian community the wealthiest community in the US, and their remittances help boost India’s Forex reserves, over the decades they have entrenched themselves in top positions in various walks of life.
In turn, as the past two governments at the center in India have realized – starting with the push for a civil nuclear deal and more FDI – it really pays to have a strong Diaspora to turn to, in the US. India probably gets more FDI through personal rapport than actual pitches by state governments or the Centre. Or at least, conviction is often borne out of knowing influential Indian Americans who vouch for safety of investment, and its vast potential.
Now imagine, if this migration from India is stopped, or curtailed. What would happen?
It’s likely, that within a decade, the influence of the community would begin to diminish sharply. While the second- and third-generation Indians Americans will, no doubt, continue to flourish, it’s the first-generation Indian Americans with strong emotional and investment ties to their motherland, that India count on for remittances and support.
In the latest instance, ironically, even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat down for talks with his counterpart, Swaraj, on Wednesday, after he reached India for his maiden visit, and the duo dug into thorny immigration issues, came a curve ball from the White House, that reduced their ambitious talks to mere diplomatic blabber.
The White House announced that the onus of an extension of H-1B visa now lies on the worker, with additional document and proof required that it’s indeed necessary for him to continue his job. That essentially, would likely mean tens of thousands of H-1B visa workers would likely be forced to go back home after three years of work, or companies who sponsor them give up on them, in sheer frustration.
Since the beginning of last year, several such impediments have been added by executive orders by Trump, including sharp escalation in refusal of visas due to inadequate documentation, which is infuriating for both applicants and companies who sponsor them, and ends up in loss of the visa; freezing H-1B premium processing temporarily – again, a delaying tactic; targeted site visits to large H-1B visa employers; and more ‘requests for evidence’ that delays visa applications, and throws a spanner for extensions.
There are also proposals in the House and Senate to end ‘chain migration’ or family-based visas, in favor of only highly skilled workers, as in Canada. The end of ‘chain migration’ would be felt hard by the Gujarati community in particular, who over the decades have expanded small businesses with the help of family members, who in turn bring other relatives over.
It would also be a huge hit for first generation Indians emigrating to the US. In turn, and time, it would lead to rootlessness among the second-and-third-generation Indian Americans, who would find their interest in India waning, cumbersome, or just totally over with.
It’s time India confronted the US, by taking the bull by its horns: demand that Trump stop issuing executive orders to hurt the H-1B visa. Or else, India would take the issue to international courts.
Just like Trump, India wants to win too.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him email@example.com Follow him on twitter @SujeetRajan1)