January 3 | By Chidanand Rajghattal
WASHINGTON: India may be looking at upwards of 500,000 of its "skilled" work force returning home from America if a proposal by the Trump administration not to extend H-1B visa of those waiting for permanent residency (Green Card) is implemented.
The Department of Homeland Security is said to be considering new regulations that would prevent H-1B visa extensions as part of President Donald Trump's "Buy American, Hire American" initiative promised during the 2016 campaign.
Under current law, foreign guest workers are allowed one three-year extension of the H-1B visa of three-year validity. If at the end of those six years the guest worker has a pending Green Card (Permanent Residency) application, then there is an almost indefinite extension of the H-1B visa till such time the applicant's Green Card processing is completed.
Because there is such a huge backlog of Green Card applicants, particularly for countries such as India and China, hundreds of thousands of workers from these countries spend 10-12 years in what is mirthlessly called H-1B hell or limbo. The small 'comfort' they currently have is they can remain in the US while the Green Card is being processed.
The Trump administration is considering ending that concession. If an H-1B visa holder has applied for a Green Card at the end of his six-years then he or she will have to exit the United States till the processing is complete.
Technically, the Trump administration is correct and well within the law to amend the rules because the H-1B was meant to address skilled worker shortage in the US, and not intended to become a route for immigration.
But over the years, hundreds of thousands of skilled foreign workers, particularly Indians and Chinese have used the H-1B route to first become permanent residents (Green Card holders) and then become citizens.
They include some of the most storied names in the US tech industry, including Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai, India-born head honchos of Microsoft and Google respectively, and because they added such immense value to the US tech industry, the whole visa category has generally been looked at favorable by both the tech industry and previous administrations.
However, in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential elections, nativist American tech workers who felt short-changed by the influx of foreign workers managed to convince the Trump campaign that there is no shortage of American tech workers and the H-1B inflow was part of the US tech industry's tactics to keep wages low.
Although, successive administrations have fiddled with the rules to make it difficult for US companies to hire foreign workers, including hiking processing fees and minimum salaries, demand for H-1B remains unabated because the US industry says America does not produce enough STEM graduates with requisite skill sets.
Changes to the current H-1B rules will affect India more than any other country. More than 50 per cent of the 85,000 H-1B visas that are currently being issued annually goes to Indian workers, which means there are an estimated 255,000 Indians with H-1B visas in the last six years alone. Tens of thousands more H-1B visa holders going back more than a decade are already awaiting Green Card processing.
Of course, it is not necessary that all H-1B visa recipients are immigration aspirants or are having their Green Cards processed. Many simply go there for short term work or return after their stint.
This is not the first blow dealt by the Trump administration to foreign worker inflow as part of its effort to keep US jobs for Americans. IT has already announced that it plans to roll back the H-4 EAD introduced during the Obama presidency that allowed spouses of H-1B visa holders to work in the US subject to certain conditions. It is also possible that the visa extension roll back is never implemented. It is currently at a proposal stage and there are powerful arguments against implementing it.
Chief among them is that the young, foreign-born skilled workforce pays into the US tax system and enhances the country's economy. Many tech savants have warned that if the US keeps them out, then it will accrue to the benefit of their home countries; they will simply go back and start Facebooks and Ubers, something US tech mavens have warned is already happening in China.