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Stern visa message for US

Sujatha Singh

New Delhi, Dec. 9: The new immigration reform bill that the Barack Obama administration has decided to back threatens to derail India-US ties that have soared over the past decade, foreign secretary Sujatha Singh will bluntly tell senior American diplomats during talks over the next three days.

The bill passed by the US Senate will fundamentally damage India’s information technology firms that have been the bedrock on which ties between the world’s two largest democracies have flourished, Singh will tell her hosts in New Delhi’s sternest message on the legislation yet.

The foreign secretary will communicate India’s “unequivocal concerns” over the American legislation during talks with her US counterpart, under secretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman, in Washington tomorrow, senior officials said.

“This is a major issue we will be raising with the Americans,” an official said of the bill that the US House of representatives will now debate. “The IT sector has been the rock that has facilitated the growth in our ties since 2000 and this legislation threatens that rock.”

This will be the foreign secretary’s first full-fledged consultations with senior American diplomats since taking charge on August 1. She will also meet Rose Gottemoeller, the acting under secretary for arms control and international security, and James Dobbins, Obama’s top negotiator with Pakistan and Afghanistan, during her visit. Singh will return on Thursday.

Afghanistan’s upcoming transition — the nation votes for President Hamid Karzai’s successor in 2014 and US troops withdraw at the end of the year — will figure in the talks, as will the Geneva II conference in January to settle Syria’s future. India wants to join the conference and would like American support for its participation.

India and the US have had trade differences and tensions over alleged American snooping on the Indian embassy in Washington, but it is the immigration bill that is emerging the most potent source of friction.

Singh’s visit to Washington comes less than a week after the White House decided to back the legislation. The bill makes it costlier — and so harder — for IT firms in the US to survive on a workforce dependent on visiting employees holding H1B work visas.

The US operations of most Indian IT firms depend on workers brought in from India and paid lower than American counterparts, giving these firms a competitive edge over their local counterparts.

The bill, Indian IT firms argue, would strip them of their edge, though the White House has argued that the legislation would facilitate plans to allow more H1B visas.