Visa disaster

Updated 01 Jul 2020


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

INDIA has been having a bad summer. The Nepalese have face-palmed them, the Chinese have taken territory they said belonged to them, and now Donald Trump has dealt a deathblow to hundreds of thousands of Indians. Last Monday, June 22, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order that mandated an immediate stop in the processing of all H-1B, J, and L visas. The order, which is already in effect, is set to expire at the end of the year and will primarily affect Indian tech workers who make up over 70 per cent of all grantees in the H-1B category. Those who already hold H-1B visas are not expected to be impacted by the order, although it is unclear whether H-1B extensions will continue to be processed.

Over the past decade, US tech companies like Google and Microsoft have employed hundreds of thousands of engineers in the sector. In addition to them, Indian companies like Infosys and Tata, which have also established a presence in Silicon Valley, were also using the visas to bring high-skilled Indian workers to the US. In addition to the H-1B visa, which is usually capped at about 85,000 issuances a year, awarded by a lottery system, Indian firms in the US had already become quite adept at using an L visa for intra-company transfers to bring thousands of Indian workers to the US.

Now those days have come to an end. Trump administration officials complained that these companies were using third party and outsourcing companies to bring in workers who were paid less than American workers and were thus responsible for driving down American wages. An analysis of the numbers does show that firms like Tata and Infosys were filing for thousands of visas (far more than employers like Apple and Amazon) and were paying workers on average about 70pc of what an American worker would have been paid. Since the employees were beholden to the employers, who were their ticket to the US labour market, they could never complain about this (if their wages were lower than what was stated in the paperwork) or bring it to the attention of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The companies have long denied the allegation, but a look at the statistics does make a case for the Trump administration; last year, 278,491 visas went to Indians, about 50,408 to Chinese, and then 58,303 to people from other countries. (This count includes new H-1Bs and extensions.) In sum, India had established dominance in the category as a means of funnelling high-skilled workers to the US.

Expectedly, the order unleashed panic in India. Analysts on Indian television insisted that this was only a temporary move and that all the visas would soon be available again. One analyst went on about how the order was not a defeat for Modi’s foreign policy, which has tried (and apparently failed) to align India with the US. Another mocked how their enormous joint rallies, and Trump’s visit to India, all seemingly amounted to nothing. Yet another suggested that India’s H-1B applicants should hope that Trump does not win his re-election bid so that the visa ban may expire on its own.

Ironically, no one in India seems to want to accept the truth behind the US visa ban.

Many of these are false promises. Ironically, no one in India seems to want to accept the truth behind the visa ban. Couched in the language of American job creation, etc, is the fact that a white nationalist American president just does not want to import brown Indians into the country.

Despite all of India’s grand delusions about belonging to a single Aryan race as white Americans, white nationalists see them as impurities that do not fit in their picture of an all-white America. Trump, who just this Sunday retweeted a video of a man chanting ‘white power’ (and then deleted it), is not interested in what this or that engineer can do; he is interested in keeping his white nationalist base happy. Indians, of all people, should understand these longings; it is they who passed a discriminatory citizenship law just a few months ago, aimed at denying citizenship to Muslims and other discriminated groups. If they can aim for a Hindu nationalist state that unjustly imposes discriminatory legislation on its minorities, then Trump can look at all the Indians coming into his country and put an end to the system that enables them to do so.

A Biden administration, if it becomes a reality, is unlikely to restore employment-based visas to what they once were. The reason truly is economic; when over 45 million Americans have no jobs, allowing hundreds of thousands of Indians to come in is unlikely to be politically popular. Those on the far left of the Democratic Party want immigration reform that focuses on the poorest migrants rather than the high-skilled category. Labour unions also have issues with the importation of workers. American STEM graduates will likely receive first priority for jobs in this category so that politicians can show that they are doing everything they can to reduce the number of unemployed citizens.

All is not awful. Most Indian and American tech companies have already started to lean heavily on allowing workers to work from home. In some ways, this fact also reduces the need for workers to actually be in the US in person. Of course, those working from India will be paid far less than what they would have been in the US. Until now, Indians have relished aligning their nationalist agenda with the Trump administration. Now, it is that very nationalist agenda that has labelled Indians as outsiders no longer welcome in the US. For the first time since the election of Trump and Modi, Indians will have to assess the cost of supporting an American president who thinks they are racially inferior and must be kept out of a nation that he believes has been built for white people.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2020