Visa woes | Trump or Biden, Indian immigration to US won’t drastically improve

For too long, the Indian Dream was the American Dream.

I addressed this concept in a TEDx talk in March 2019, where I said that for the aspirational classes of the 1990s, the notion was that you do well in school, in order to pursue a STEM degree, and then head on to a great grad school programme in the United States — everything else is secondary.

One would then be armed with intellectual arsenal to land a plump job in Silicon Valley or Wall Street, get the H-1B rolling, a green card would be the pathway to citizenship, and, last but not least, have children born in the US. One could facetiously say that the obsession with the American Dream was that growing up in India, the letters of the English Alphabet were: A, B, C…H-1B.

US President Donald Trump’s executive order in June limiting the entry of H-1B and L-1 visa holders outside the US must be seen in this light to understand how it accentuated the angst many Indian immigrants in the US go through — that sense of being in immigration limbo.

As politics and campaigning surrounding the November presidential elections continue, there is a myopic notion that a Democratic administration under a Joe Biden presidency, with the first Indian origin (albeit half) Vice-President by his side, will ameliorate immigration woes for the Indian white-collar diaspora.

The fallacy here is the assumption that Biden, if he were to win and enter the Oval Office in January, with a stroke of a pen would reopen the floodgates to high-skilled workers and loosen the immigration chokehold.

Let’s simplify the immigration imbroglio into puppet talking heads. Yes, Trump is a scarier puppet, making incendiary rhetoric on all fronts, and his economic insularity and nationalism precludes looking at immigration as an asset.

Biden, by that nature, will be a friendlier puppet, amiable and less vitriolic.

That said, with all puppets there are strings, both visible and invisible, and puppet masters. The strings here are bureaucratic backlogs, the lobbyists, several congressmen and senators who jostle over such contentious issues. Plenty of other anti-immigration hawks, such as Stephen Miller, and similar others who have kept away from the public eye are hard at work at stalling immigration.

Yes, a President Biden can redo an executive order, but assuming that immigration will return to its golden period of the 1990s is ludicrous. A Biden presidency faces plenty of challenges in January 2021.

The US has been economically ravaged by COVID-19, unemployment numbers are woefully terrifying, numbers far worse than the Global Financial Crisis of 2007–08. Biden’s priorities will be to stem the bleeding — with top focus on a vaccine that will help accelerate a recovery, and efforts to mitigate future outbreaks. Then there is the priority of restarting the US economy from the morass it finds itself in, getting Americans back to work. In some ways, he has walked into another economic quagmire, having seen these unemployment numbers as co-pilot with Barack Obama as they took office in January 2009.

Even for those who abide by the ‘immigration is good for the economy’ playbook, it would be a hard sell with the US’ staggering unemployment numbers.

However, here’s something striking — the immigration numbers for H-1B holders didn’t get any easier under Obama. Indian IT companies (who make up a large portion of H-1B filing) saw diminishing approvals during the Obama years.

To revisit the puppet analogy, yes, Obama was a ‘friendly puppet’, one that was a fan favourite for non-partisans and many non-Americans for his convivial demeanour. However, Obama didn’t touch H-1B reforms; in fact a lot of the immigration reforms under Obama were towards DACAs (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DREAMers, and creating a pathway for citizenship for faster naturalisation.

Some may argue, politically, it makes sense since the Hispanic community (a large portion of the DACAs) form a substantial voting bloc, and have the right channels to have their voices amplified to lawmakers in Congress.

The H-1B holders and many other high-skilled immigrants are not a voting bloc, especially since they aren’t citizens. Also, the Indian American community is far smaller, and not all have been vocal on immigration, with many choosing to remain apathetic on the issue.

On the other hand, as US President, George W Bush was no fan favourite, even among his Republican base. Many were highly critical for his foreign policy quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, his failure to prevent the economy from falling over the cliff and a sense of naivety and lack of worldliness in his presidential demeanour.

However, under President Bush, high-skilled immigration received a boost as he recognised its economic merits. In an address to Congress in 2004, Bush stated that “the United States’ immigration system was broken” and proposed that a system of “matching willing workers with willing employers” be the cornerstone for reform”.

In today’s immigration climate, some of the Democrats’ immigration outlook embody the words enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: give me your tired, your poor ‘. While some of the Republicans have become extremely hawkish to the point of espousing ‘no Immigration, at all’, the high-skilled Indian worker remains trapped in between.

Being in between or in an immigration limbo is a feeling all too familiar for many Indian immigrants.

Akshobh Giridharadas is a Washington DC-based former journalist. Views are personal.

Originally published at

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