As the U.S. election nears, work visas have become policy targets for the White House
The Trump administration has once again tightened the screws on the country’s immigration system in a manner that is likely to directly impact Indian companies contracting with American firms for on-site work. This week the State Department proposed to stop issuing temporary or B-1 business visas relating to occupations normally classified as falling under the H-1B speciality or skilled visa category. The argument is that under the guise of the business-related entry of personnel, companies were sending their technology professionals for short-term stays to work on U.S. jobs, potentially undercutting the wages and employment prospects of U.S. workers. The proposed policy action, just ahead of the November 3 presidential election, is significant for following closely on the heels of other, similar moves to tighten restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals, including raising the minimum salaries payable to those applying for H-1B visas and to stop the issuance of such visas entirely until December 31, 2020. Taken together, it would be reasonable to expect a painful economic fallout on legal skilled migration from India. For example, the analysts predict that Mr. Trump’s June 22, 2020 ban on new H-1B visa issuance could impact up to 219,000 workers, who would be unable to take up potential jobs in the U.S.
To date, there has been no retaliatory policy from India, at most perhaps diplomatic parleys where South Block has sought to emphasise that technology and innovation via the trade in services remain a key pillar of the bilateral strategic partnership and highly-skilled Indian professionals working in the U.S. help bridge the skill gap there, imparting a technological and competitive edge. In the backdrop of the steady clampdown on visa issuance is Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on protecting U.S. jobs from foreigners, especially in cases where lower wages drive substitution effects. The pressure on the White House to increase the cadence of the drumbeat for this form of “protectionism” has risen owing to the pandemic’s job-killing effects. U.S. joblessness spiked to an unprecedented 14.7% in April 2020. While it has dropped off since then, the country has entered the final phases of electoral campaigning, which has seen sharp attacks by Democratic challenger Joe Biden on Mr. Trump’s alleged failure to mitigate the economic crisis. When considered alongside the fact that Mr. Trump is steadily losing ground in federal and regional opinion polls, it is hardly surprising that areas of legal migration, including skilled workers entering the U.S. via the H-1B programme, have become policy targets for the White House. It would be wise for Indian IT firms and others seeking to send their employees to the U.S. for short-term work to assume that regardless of who wins the election, it will be a long time, if ever, before they can hope to return to business as usual.