RESTRICTED AC­CESS

To put ‘Amer­ica First’, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to re­strict white-col­lar im­mi­gra­tion as well. In­dian com­pa­nies should worry

India Today - - SPECIAL REPORT - By Ashish Ku­mar Sen in Wash­ing­ton

In Novem­ber 2015, Don­ald Trump sat down for an in­ter­view with Stephen Ban­non, ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of the Bre­it­bart News Net­work, a far-right news and opin­ion site. In the course of the con­ver­sa­tion, Ban­non made the star­tling as­ser­tion that Sil­i­con Val­ley has far too many Asian CEOs. An omi­nous por­tent of things to come? It cer­tainly seems so to­day.

Fast-for­ward to 2017: Trump is the pres­i­dent of the United States, and Ban­non, who has been de­scribed as a white su­prem­a­cist, is his all-pow­er­ful ad­vi­sor. Add to this the fact that soon af­ter com­ing to of­fice, Trump is­sued a highly-charged and con­tro­ver­sial ex­ec­u­tive or­der—which had Ban­non’s fin­ger­prints all over it—ban­ning cit­i­zens from seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries and refugees from all over the world from en­ter­ing the US. A fed­eral judge in Seat­tle has since blocked the travel ban. Re­gard­less, Trump is de­ter­mined to get it passed.

Given this re­cent and not-so-re­cent his­tory, In­dian and Amer­i­can firms that have ben­e­fit­ted from the H1B visa pro­gramme are now wracked with anx­i­ety fol­low­ing re­ports that Trump has another ex­ec­u­tive or­der in the works, one that would place se­vere re­stric­tions on hir­ing for­eign work­ers. A leaked draft of the or­der shows that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion wants to re­duce le­gal im­mi­gra­tion to the US. The or­der di­rects the sec­re­tary of the depart­ment of home­land se­cu­rity to pro­mul­gate a reg­u­la­tion that would

“re­store the in­tegrity of em­ploy­ment-based non-im­mi­grant worker pro­grammes” and “con­sider ways” to amend the H1B pro­gramme so that it is “more ef­fi­cient and en­sure that ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the pro­gramme are the best and the bright­est”.

“With this ex­ec­u­tive or­der, Pres­i­dent Trump will help ful­fil sev­eral cam­paign prom­ises by align­ing im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies with the na­tional in­ter­est and en­sur­ing that of­fi­cials ad­min­is­ter our laws in a man­ner that pri­ori­tises the in­ter­ests of Amer­i­can work­ers and—to the max­i­mum de­gree pos­si­ble— the wages and well-be­ing of those work­ers,” the draft states.

Sheela Murthy, an im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney based in Owings Mills, Mary­land, has been in­un­dated with in­quiries from peo­ple wor­ried about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion agenda. “It is freak­ing out a lot of con­sult­ing com­pa­nies and busi­nesses that use H1B work­ers,” says Murthy. Close to 70 per cent of the H1B visas, cur­rently capped at 65,000 a year by the US Congress, are snapped up by In­dian work­ers.

“The text of the leaked draft sug­gests that the ad­min­is­tra­tion be­lieves that the H1B and other em­ploy­ment­based im­mi­grant pro­grammes have lost their in­tegrity. [This] is very trou­bling in and of it­self be­cause it shows an in­cred­i­ble bias,” Murthy adds. “They want rec­om­men­da­tions to make US im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy bet­ter serve the na­tional in­ter­est—mean­ing it is not serv­ing our na­tional in­ter­est right now.”

The sen­ti­ment re­flected in the draft echoed Ban­non’s com­ments in his in­ter­view with Trump. Re­fer­ring to those com­ments on Asian en­trepreneurs in Sil­i­con Val­ley, Murthy says: “Frankly, it shows racist ten­den­cies. It is very trou­bling. This is not what this coun­try is all about.”

But racism is not the pri­mary driver of visa re­form, at least not for ev­ery­one. The H1B visa pro­gramme has for long been crit­i­cised as a tool used by US and for­eign firms to ex­ploit for­eign work­ers who of­ten re­ceive low wages and few ben­e­fits. Em­ploy­ers ar­gue that the visas are im­por­tant be­cause they al­low for­eign work­ers to fill skill gaps in the Amer­i­can work­force. For years, US law­mak­ers have dis­cussed visa re­form. Now, with Trump vow­ing ‘Amer­ica First’, and pledg­ing to crack down on the ex­ist­ing visa regime, law­mak­ers are sens­ing an op­por­tu­nity for change.

“Re­strict­ing H1B is not a new topic, and fits in well with Pres­i­dent Trump’s agenda of re­strict­ing chan­nels to hire non-Amer­i­can work­ers,” says Richard M. Ros­sow, the Wad­hwani Chair in US In­dia Pol­icy Stud­ies at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Wash­ing­ton.

A slew of leg­is­la­tion re­lated to

“For em­ploy­ers, the big is­sue is whether the min­i­mum salary for H1B work­ers is go­ing to be raised,” says Sheela Murthy

H1B visa re­form is in the works in the US Congress. Chuck Grass­ley, a se­na­tor from Iowa, who is chair­man of the US Se­nate’s Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, and Se­na­tor Dick Durbin, a Demo­crat from the state of Illi­nois, are long-time ad­vo­cates of H1B visa re­form. They have rein­tro­duced a bill, first in­tro­duced in 2007, which would pro­hibit com­pa­nies with more than 50 em­ploy­ees, of which at least half are H1B or L1 visa hold­ers, from hir­ing ad­di­tional H1B em­ploy­ees, and pro­hibit the re­place­ment of Amer­i­can work­ers by H1B or L1 visa hold­ers.

“Congress cre­ated th­ese pro­grammes to com­ple­ment Amer­ica’s high­skilled work­force, not re­place it,” says Grass­ley, re­fer­ring to the H1B and L1 visa pro­grammes. “Un­for­tu­nately, some com­pa­nies are try­ing to ex­ploit the pro­grammes by cut­ting Amer­i­can work­ers for cheaper labour. We need pro­grammes ded­i­cated to putting Amer­i­can work­ers first.”

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Dar­rel Issa, a Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can, has in­tro­duced a bill that he hopes will re­duce the chances that Amer­i­can work­ers will lose their jobs to cheap for­eign labour be­cause it would raise the salary re­quire­ment for H1B visa hold­ers to $100,000, up from the cur­rent $60,000 an­nual wage. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Zoe Lof­gren, a Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, who rep­re­sents Sil­i­con Val­ley in the US Congress, has in­tro­duced a bill un­der which em­ploy­ers who pay as much as up to three times the pre­vail­ing wage would get first pref­er­ence to hire work­ers through the H1B visa pro­gramme.

“From an em­ployer’s point of view, one of the big is­sues is whether the min­i­mum salary is go­ing to be raised for H1B work­ers,” says Murthy. Ros­sow says he is cer­tain that In­dian tech­nol­ogy firms are con­cerned about pos­si­ble re­stric­tions on the use, and the cost, of H1B visas. He con­tends there are only three steps that th­ese tech­nol­ogy firms can take: “To ei­ther adapt by do­ing more of the work in In­dia; to com­ply and hire a larger per­cent­age of Amer­i­can work­ers for their US op­er­a­tions; or to try to change the rules through ad­vo­cacy.”

Tata Con­sul­tancy Ser­vices (TCS), In­fosys and Wipro are among the ma­jor tech­nol­ogy firms that have ben­e­fit­ted from out­sourc­ing. On Jan­uary 31, shares of th­ese com­pa­nies took a nose­dive on news that Trump was plan­ning changes to the H1B visa sys­tem. “TCS does not par­tic­i­pate in such in­dus­try spec­u­la­tion,” Ben­jamin Troun­son, head of North Amer­ica cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the com­pany, said in re­sponse to ques­tions from in­dia to­day. Sim­i­larly, a spokes­woman for In­fosys, Sarah Vanita Gideon, said the com­pany would not com­ment on the is­sue at this time. Spokesper­sons for Wipro did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

For­eign work­ers on H1B visas play a crit­i­cal role in the US econ­omy. “Tech­nol­ogy firms reg­u­larly re­port a dearth of US work­ers for high-end jobs. If this lim­its their abil­ity to do busi­ness and win con­tracts, clearly we need to make sure an al­ter­na­tive chan­nel, such as im­mi­gra­tion, will al­low for busi­nesses to thrive,” Ros­sow says. “Im­mi­grants have made pow­er­ful con­tri­bu­tions to the Amer­i­can econ­omy and so­ci­ety through their in­no­va­tions; this pipe­line must also be main­tained,” he says, while adding, “I also re­alise that no pro­gramme is per­fect, and I’m sure there are help­ful ad­just­ments that can be made.”

For now, em­ploy­ers and for­eign work­ers may find so­lace in the knowl­edge that Trump has not signed the ex­ec­u­tive or­der re­lated to the visa pro­gramme. The draft that has cir­cu­lated in the press could still be mod­i­fied be­fore it gets to his desk. The White House also can­not change the law with­out Congress sup­port, but it could is­sue reg­u­la­tions on laws that al­ready ex­ist, says Murthy. As re­gards the lan­guage of the draft or­der, she adds, “that seems to por­tend a fu­ture that is not very bright”.

Il­lus­tra­tion by NILANJAN DAS

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