Immigration reform is Obama’s gift to India

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on November 25, 2017

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The dream lives on for the diaspora and for those studying and working in the US. Indians will be forever beholden

Barack Obama’s announcement on immigration was sweeping not only for the depth of change but also for how it will be accomplished: by executive order without congressional approval.

The last time change of this magnitude was enacted was in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan signed a massive immigration overhaul Bill into law.

Technically, Obama’s new actions can be slowed down or even overturned. The Republicans could choose to not fund immigration agencies. But many rely on user fees for their operating budget and don’t rely on congressional appropriation, neutralising the House's power to control the purse.

Or the Republicans could go to court. But this too will fail because courts generally do not interfere in disputes between the other two co-equal branches of government. In most cases, the courts would simply defer to presidential executive authority which Obama repeatedly asserted he has.

Or the Republicans could work with the Democrats to pass a Bill that Obama could sign — something highly unlikely given how poisonous the political well has now become. Or, another Republican president can as easily overturn Obama’s actions again with another stroke of a pen. This too is improbable because it is politically hard to bring the benefits genie back into the bottle. It is safe, therefore, to say that these changes are here to stay forever.

Welcome relief

While the American media has mostly focused on administrative relief granted to nearly 5 million illegal immigrants who will be protected from the threat of deportation, there are plenty of moves that will bring cheer to Indians globally. The most important change is that it will make it easier for the US to import new high tech talent from abroad and keep existing talent within American shores. This is welcome relief for millions of Indian techies and students already in the US, or those who wish to go there.

Obama’s announcement favours Indian students who earn US Masters and PhD degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and expressly does not hand out goodies to the Indian IT majors.

For India Inc, the status quo largely remains as the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that the Senate passed in 2013 is now dead.

The diaspora Indians’ family income, already the highest in the US, is about to go even higher. Spouses of Indian tech workers who are currently on H-1B visas will be granted automatic work authorisation if the visa-holder has an approved application for a green card.

Remittances to India could rise as young workers send additional discretionary dollars to support families back home.

The OPT Programme Extension is a significant benefit available only to STEM students. An Indian graduate student generally enters the US on an F-1 visa and can work for 12 months on it even before graduating, as an intern at a company, for example. After graduating, the student can work for an additional 17 months for a total of 29 work months all on the F-1 visa. This extra period provides STEM students more time to seek an employer who is willing to sponsor them for scarce H-1B work visas.

The number of OPT STEM visas granted rose from about 29,000 a year in 2008 to nearly 1,23,000 in 2013, a 400 per cent increase. (The H-1B visa cap meanwhile has stayed constant at 85,000). The White House announced that it would further strengthen and extend this hugely popular programme. While details are awaited, this should come as a boon to the hundreds of thousands of Indian students who go to the US for graduate study each year as they now have a special temporary work visa system of their own.

Other changes

New rules are expected in the temporary L-1 visa space as well. This has been abused by many Indian companies in the US to import high tech labour on an intra-company transfer basis and so, some of these loopholes are likely to be tightened.

And to bolster family immigration, the White House announced new rules that will benefit thousands of Indians who may have overstayed their 180-day tourist visas in the hopes of securing a family-based green card. These individuals have to obtain a special waiver for unlawfully staying in the US before departing the US to attend visa interviews. This programme is to be expanded.

Obama’s announcements on immigration are just as game-changing as his historic 2008 win and will likely bring diaspora Indians back to the Democratic fold for generations to come.

The writer, a former director at PwC, is the managing director of Rao Advisors LLC

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Published on November 23, 2014
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