American dream goes distant: Trump's plans on H1B visa have Indians on tenterhooks

Trump is likely to suspend visas for 180 days to till the end of the year


In a year when nothing seems to go well, US President Donald Trump's announcement of planning to suspend work visas, including the H1B— the first step for every Indian towards living the great American dream— hasn't come as a shock. The writing was on the wall ever since the COVID-19 lockdowns had begun impacting global economies months ago. Trump has always maintained a harsh anti-immigrant stance and blames outsiders for most of the domestic problems—from unemployment to crime. The H1B visa had nearly managed to survive his tenure, although obtaining one had anyway become increasingly difficult.

Trump is expected to make the announcement on the temporary suspension of visas on Monday (US time). The visas getting the axe are the H1B, L-1, H2B and J-1. Indians would be most affected by the suspension of H1B, which allows highly skilled people to work in the US, and has been used by software companies like Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys to take skilled IT professionals from India to the US to run outsourced projects for US firms. Ninety per cent of applicants for the H1B visa are from India. The system worked well for both the US and India in its heyday as the Indian migrant workforce was still cheaper than the US workforce. The earnings that the Indians made through this visa regime helped pay off their education loans. While many returned, a large number used this visa to help them get green cards and the ultimate dream a US passport.

By American estimates alone, around 2.4 lakh people get the H1B visa every year. The H1B visa is a short-term work visa, while H2B visa is for seasonal workers like hotel and construction staff, and is mostly used by Mexicans and other neighbouring countries. The J-1 is meant for academicians and those on cultural exchanges.

While there is no clarity yet on Trump's plans, there is talk that he might either suspend these visas for 180 days, or for the rest of the year. According to Trump, with the US economy having been hit, precious jobs cannot be given away to foreigners. Tech companies have warned that this decision may be counterproductive, specially with the H1B visa category, which is for a very skilled, exclusive work force. The president has only made two reassurances so far—that those on existing visas won't be impacted by the decision, and that there will be a few exemptions to the ban.

Vinay Israni (name changed), who is pursuing a masters programme in an East Coast college, has been wondering about his future for the past several weeks. Students like him intend to stay back in the US after their studies, first on the visa extension that the US offers for them to acquire jobs and offset some of the education loan, and then, to acquire an H1B visa and continue to work, at a higher salary and in a better firm. Trump's decision won't impact him immediately, given that he is still on a student visa. But the future appears bleak as the employment prospects have reduced. “I will have to rethink my career prospects entirely,'' he said.

In fact, many parents are wondering if they should be sending their children abroad for higher studies at this time. It isn't just the uncertainty of work visas in the future, it is also the question about whether the next academic year will see a full campus programme or whether students will have to contend with online instructions, which, for Indians, means staying awake all night.

For the lakhs in India who aspire for an H1B visa, the news is disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. The options of Canada and Australia, which once seemed alternatives to the American dream, are also more distant now, given the dismal global economic scenario. One young couple, on a temporary visa in the US which will expire soon, had invested in acquiring a Permanent Residence (PR) in neighbouring Canada, but they are now unsure of that too. One never knows when and which country will tighten rules to keep out the migrant workforce. With the job scenario back home in India also bleak, this is a generation which is simply shrugging off its bad luck, and hope that once the pandemic is over, and economies recover, the good days will come roaring back again.

The irony about the H1B visa ban is that it hit Indians the most, a country and people about whom Trump has only spoken of in superlatives. Of course, his visa announcement is not targeted against India specifically, but given that the bulk of beneficiaries are Indian, that is what it will turn out to be.