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