VISA CLAMPDOWN VIA H4
Hyper-nationalism begets anti-outsider sentiment, which has made victims of ‘immigrants’ in many nations. US President Donald Trump, who came to power on his protectionist ‘America First’ agenda, has been under immense pressure, ever since he came to power in 2017, to secure jobs for Americans. In April 2017, Trump signed a ‘Buy American, Hire American’ executive order, which has served to justify several recent changes in policy vis-à-vis H1B visas, of which India was always a big beneficiary.
The latest blow is the move by the Trump administration to put an end to H4 dependent visas that allowed spouses of H1B, or ‘high-skilled’, visa holders to work in the US. Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Francis Cissna, in a three-page letter dated April 4 to the US Senate Judiciary Committee, had proposed “regulatory changes to remove H4 dependent spouses from the class of aliens eligible for employment authorisation”; the proposal has now been put into action.
In 2016, more than 41,000 H4 visa holders were issued work authorisation. By June this year, 36,000 more were to have been issued work permits. R. Chandrashekhar, former Nasscom president, says the move will make the H1B less attractive to Indian professionals “…especially for families with two breadwinners, and that constitutes a significant number of professionals from India”.
Michael Kugelman, senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, foresees a similar effect of ending the H4 visa programme: “[it] will have a major impact on Indian spouses… [and] cause complications for corresponding H1B visa holders, and those wanting to come to the US in future.” Indians account for more than half the 85,000 H1B visas currently being issued every year.
In March 2018, the USCIS suspended premium processing of all H1B visa petitions for fiscal 2019, which will make acquiring visas a much more tedious process. In the penultimate year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, when he is struggling to create jobs, the new rules could send back or keep at home a lot of young “high-skilled” workers. Chandrashekhar points out how the politics of the US move is at odds with even their own economic compulsions: “US businesses need these skilled professionals. The employment of American high-skilled labour is almost 100 per cent, yet there is a shortage of about 2 million STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals, of which 1 million are from the IT/ computer science sector.”
Interestingly, while Modi and Trump have worked with great keenness in strategic areas, there has been no synergy on the economic front, be it the US visa policy or trade talks. “Economic ties are the Achilles heel of US-India relations,” says Kugelman.