The 2012 US Presidential election cycle is still quite some distance away, but posturing by political parties has already begun. Indications are that on the foreign policy front, issues and focus will be more or less the same, irrespective of what the final party manifestos may have to say on them.

And manifestos are only broad parameters of what each candidate and party may have to offer and generally lack in specifics.

As it has happened in the last two or perhaps even three Presidential election cycles in the United States, for India the stakes are pretty much clear on political and economic fronts, and all of these go much beyond what Democrats and Republicans are going to say on international terrorism with or without the Pakistan linkages.

While there is no doubt that bilateral relations have gone the distance in the last 15 years or so, rhetoric generated by candidates at the time of the campaigning has generated some unnecessary “heat” that the relationship could have done without.

One such issue that will be on the forefront in this election cycle is that of Outsourcing with all the hoopla on the various visa options that come along with this.

In the past both Democrats and Republican candidates — while maintaining a scrupulous “free trade” agenda — have sought to assure domestic audience that preference by way of tax and other incentives will be given to those American companies that will “keep” jobs in America.

The issue of why American companies opt for foreign skills and will continue to do so in future or the fact that major corporate houses from India are creating jobs in America and for Americans has hardly got the attention each deserves.

First salvo 47

One of the first shots in the 2012 election cycle has already been fired by the Republican Senator from Iowa, Mr Charles (Chuck) Grassley who has called for a thorough investigation by the Departments of State and Homeland Security of the B-1 visa programme and wage requirements of the H1B visa.

 “When unemployment remains at a staggering 8.8 per cent, we should be focusing our oversight efforts on employers who are taking advantage of the system and importing foreign workers to the detriment of Americans,”

Mr Grassley has maintained. The senior Republican law maker has had a sustained interest in visa ‘abuse' and has specifically focussed in the past on H1B and L Visas.

Now it is a special interest in the B1 , or Business Visa. 

Senator Mr Grassley has fired off identical letters to the Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Ms Janet Napolitano, questioning the “B-1 in lieu of H-1B” policy. 

“Under this low threshold (of the B-1 visa), a company could import workers via the B-1 business visitor visa and evade the H-1B visa cap and prevailing wage requirements that would otherwise apply to such workers so long as the workers could show that their pay checks were still coming from the foreign company”, the Iowa lawmaker has said going on to make a pointed reference to a complaint that has been filed against Infosys Technologies.   

“On February 23, 2010, a US employee of Infosys Technologies filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Lowndes County, Alabama, alleging that his employer was “sending lower level and unskilled foreigners to the United States to work in full-time positions at Infosys' customer sites in direct violation 4of immigration laws” Mr Grassley has said.

Visa abuse plaint

“The plaintiff described ways that Infosys, one of the top ten H-1B petitioning companies, had worked to “creatively” get around the H-1B visa program in order to bring in low-skilled and low-wage workers, resulting in visa fraud against the US Government” he added.

“If the allegations against Infosys are substantiated, American workers will have been hurt by this company's fraudulent actions, and the integrity of both the B-1 and H-1B visa programs will have been compromised” Mr Grassley said. He has demanded information from the two top officials of the Obama administration on how the B-1 visa is being processed by employers and consular officers.

Specifically, the lawmaker has asked for the length of time the B-1 visa holder remains in the United States; the number of “B-1 in lieu of H-1B” visas issued in the last five years and in the diplomatic posts they were issued; the kind of steps the State Department takes to ensure that a B-1 visa holder will only attend a meeting, convention or business appointment in the United States; and the actions taken by employers who have abused the B1 programme.

He has specifically posed the question if visas for Infosys will cease to be approved until the lawsuit in Alabama is settled and if not, the kind of additional oversight that will be maintained until the lawsuit is finalised.

Senator Grassley has given April 28 as a deadline to the two Secretaries to respond to his queries, but it is a no-brainer to see these issues dragging out well into the 2012 election cycle and beyond. In fact, one may argue that this is just the beginning of a long drawn-out battle of wits intended to calm a domestic audience already deeply hurt by the economic malaise and budgetary cuts.

To the audience in India who are probably getting bent out of shape on the goings on in outsourcing and visa fronts, a word of advice: Just sit back, put your feet up and relax — the fun has not even started yet!

(A former Washington correspondent of The Hindu and PTI, the author is currently Head, School of Media Studies of the Faculty of Science and Humanities, SRM University, Chennai.)