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H-1B visa in the spotlight (Hindu.)

There are disconcerting signals from the Trump White House and Capitol Hill of likely changes to the H-1B non-immigrant visa programme in the U.S. for skilled workers in tech jobs. Indian IT firms have been among the top recipients of the 65,000 such visas made available annually via a lottery system, in some years garnering well in excess of 80% of them. However, President Donald Trump, driven by his campaign promise of “Buy American, Hire American”, now has this “specialty occupation worker” visa in his crosshairs. Shares in Indian IT majors took a nosedive last week when an unconfirmed draft executive order leaked to U.S. media houses appeared to call for reform of immigration rules for skilled foreign workers that would raise the salary eligibility for such visas to $130,000, reverse the extensions granted by the Obama administration to the Optional Practical Training programme for foreign graduates in the U.S., and institute a rigorous monitoring system for companies employing L-1 visa holders, intra-company transferees. Any hope that India Inc. may have of such executive orders not gaining the requisite support in Congress is likely to come to naught: at least two bills with bipartisan backing were introduced in the House of Representatives last month, both urging tightening of conditions for skilled-worker visas that are, in the government’s view, costing Americans jobs.

Notwithstanding the shadow of protectionism that it would cast on the bilateral relationship with New Delhi, this visa crackdown in the making raises troubling questions for the U.S. tech sector and the broader economy as well. Any significant hike in the minimum salary levels for the specialised jobs held by H-1B visa recipients will hit not only Indian IT firms but also the tech titans of Silicon Valley, including Microsoft, Google and Facebook. This will inflict pain on the U.S. economy. Similarly, unless skill-based criteria are used in addition to wage-level restrictions, numerous U.S. firms will struggle to fill mid-level jobs with qualified Americans. Indian firms have for years been the most rapidly growing investors in the U.S. economy. If IT companies within this group are impacted by onerous new restrictions, they would likely prefer to entirely offshore their operations to India. Ironically, that could lead to job losses for American workers. While Mr. Trump was elected into office campaigning for economic revitalisation and job-creation for Americans, his administration would be wise to think through all the possible outcomes that could result from ham-fisted policies in the immigration space.

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