Trump visa vow test for India

President-elect Donald Trump today called the scrutiny of "abuses" in America's work-visa system a top priority for his administration, deepening concern in New Delhi about the prospect of a protracted diplomatic tussle over thousands of Indian-held jobs in the US.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 23.11.16
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New Delhi, Nov. 22: President-elect Donald Trump today called the scrutiny of "abuses" in America's work-visa system a top priority for his administration, deepening concern in New Delhi about the prospect of a protracted diplomatic tussle over thousands of Indian-held jobs in the US.

Donald Trump

Trump said the creation and return of jobs to the US would be the single biggest agenda of the first 100 days of his administration, in a 2.38-minute video uploaded online this morning, his first policy declaration since his November 8 election.

His comments came a day after India's foreign secretary S. Jaishankar hinted at the uncertainty gnawing at New Delhi's foreign policy establishment over Trump's win.

Jaishankar has just returned from the US where he met members of Trump's transition team, apart from officials in the current administration of President Barack Obama, but did not receive any assurances over India's key concerns, officials familiar with the meetings suggested to The Telegraph .

"On immigration," Trump said in his message, "I will direct the Department of Labor to investigate all abuses of visa programmes that undercut the American worker."

A majority of temporary work visas, known as H1B visas, are issued each year by the US to Indian workers, mostly in the information technology and related sectors. In 2015, 64 per cent of the 85,000 H1B visas allowed in the US were issued to Indians, including 84 per cent of visas issued for technology jobs. These include 65,000 visas for foreign nationals based abroad, and 20,000 visas for foreign students in the US.

The large issuance of H1B visas to foreign nationals - that too from one country, India - has repeatedly been criticised by members of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

The H1B regime was created with the aim of allowing American companies to hire college-educated and trained foreigners in "specialty occupations" requiring "highly specialized knowledge" with the condition that these jobs should not depress US wages.

But US Citizenship and Immigration Services studies have found that as many as 27 per cent of H1B workers are typically paid less than the wage prevalent in the US.

Many of the conditions under which American companies can hire foreign graduates do not need them to first try and hire US nationals, a loophole most criticised by opponents of the H1B programme.

And American companies have been accused of circumventing the law by getting Indian companies like Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to apply for work visas instead, on behalf of Indian workers. Retrenched workers at Disney had last year filed federal lawsuits against Infosys and TCS, accusing them of violating the spirit and intent of the H1B programme.

India has over the past decade and half used its growing diplomatic clout with the US, and the profits earned by American companies that hire lower-paid Indian workers, to scuttle initiatives to tighten the work-visa regime.

But Trump's election campaign rhetoric was centred on bringing back American jobs and was peppered with frequent criticism of the H1B visa system, an emphasis that alarmed India.

Breitbart News, the "alt-right" news website whose chief Steve Bannon is Trump's top adviser, ran a series of articles focused on Indian companies "abusing" the H1B programme through the election campaign.

Trump's selection of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions - one of America's leading critics of illegal immigration - for the post of attorney general added to those worries in the foreign ministry here, where every Trump move is being analysed to understand the implications for India.

Jaishankar's visit to the US was aimed at prodding the incoming US administration in a direction of some continuity - to avoid spending months and years re-examining aspects of a relationship India views as settled.

But a day after his return from the US, Jaishankar suggested India was bracing itself for a period of uncertainty and changed American priorities under a Trump administration.

"There will be change in terms of engagement of the US with the world," Jaishankar said at a seminar at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses yesterday. "What can be safely predicted is that the Trump administration will have different priorities."

For India, any tightening of the work-visa rules by the US would represent a core cause for tension because it would impact thousands of skilled Indian workers and major Indian companies.

These workers, India has often argued, also serve as a key people-to-people bond between the two countries.

But Trump's comments today suggested that the alleged abuses of the work-visa system by Indian and American companies would be high on his target list.

"I have asked my transition team to develop a list of executive actions we can take on day one to restore our laws and bring back our jobs," Trump said at the start of his video message. "It's about time."