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In Surprise Outreach, Donald Trump Pledges To Reform H-1B Visa Programme


WASHINGTON: US president Donald Trump on Friday pledged to reform the H-1B visa process, a skilled temporary guest worker programme widely used by Indian professionals, saying he wants to "encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the US" and provide "a potential path to citizenship."

The president's unexpected outreach towards foreign guest workers came amid a furious debate over immigration reform and the need for a southern border wall, which he says is need to staunch illegal immigrants, while pledging to smoothen the path for legal immigration. Nearly 400,000 foreign guest workers, including more than 300,000 Indian professionals, are stuck in what is called H1-B limbo, their route to permanent residency and citizenship squeezed by country-specific quotes and the obsessive focus on resolving the illegal immigration issue at the expense of the legal immigration gridlock.

"H-1B holders in the United States can rest assured that changes are soon coming which will bring both simplicity and certainty to your stay, including a potential path to citizenship. We want to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the US," Trump tweeted on Friday morning, hours after he returned from Texas, where he inspected the border and held a round table to make the case for Congressional funding for a border wall.

The president's softening on the legal immigration through H-1B issue did not please the American tech workers constituency that has campaigned against the H-1B guest worker program citing widespread misuse, and which supported him in hope that he will curtail it. Some Trump advisors, pandering to this nativist constituency, have been leery of the H-1B program, claiming that it brings in sub-standard low-paid foreign guest workers who take jobs from American professionals.

"Mr. president, what about American tech workers who are being displaced by H-1B guest workers and recent college grads who can't find jobs in STEM fields? American workers are truly the best and brightest. You pledged to put American workers first. This isn't it," Numbers USA, a civil immigration forum, said in response to Trump's tweet.

"So if you are smart you are allowed in, but if you are fleeing for your life and your children's lives, you have to stay on the other side of your imaginary wall?" asked another Trump critic, adding, "I commend you continuing the H1-B, but trying to act all high and mighty over this is a joke."

Much Indian support in the US for president Trump is premised on his pledge to reform the immigration system that many experts say discriminates against those to come to the country legally while favoring illegal immigrants who are beneficiaries of various amnesty and regularization programs. Because the current system imposes a seven per cent per country quota on allotment of Green Cards or the Legal Permanent Residency (LPR), countries such as India and China, with large population of potential or aspiring immigrants, have to wait long years to become US residents.

A recent bipartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) report indicated that if the per-country cap for employment-based immigrants was removed, Indian and Chinese nationals would dominate the flow of new employment-based LPRs for as many years as needed to clear out the accumulated queue of prospective immigrants from those countries.

As of April 2018, Indians (at 306,601 professionals) constituted 78 per cent of the 395,025 foreign nationals waiting for Green Cards in just one category of employment-based LPR applications. Most of them are IT professionals.

Tech eminences such as Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella and Google CEO Sundar Pichai have traversed this tortuous route to US permanent residency and citizenship, and many US corporate honchos, from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg, have argued that Washington needs to reform a system whose gridlock is making it more and more difficult to retain such foreign talent. Gates has gone so far as to suggest a green card should be stapled to foreign students who graduate with distinction from US universities.

The current Immigration and Naturalisation Act (INA) allocates 140,000 visas annually for five employment-based LPR categories, roughly 12 per cent of the 1.1 million LPRs admitted in fiscal 2017. It further limits each immigrant-sending country to an annual maximum of seven per cent of all employment-based LPR admissions, which means only about 9800 of the more than 300,000 Indians waiting for green card get it each year, even as more and more are added to the waiting pool.

The upshot (and the bright side of it for New Delhi) of this ever-growing pool stuck in this gridlock (due to the seven per cent country-specific restrictions), is that many Green Card hopefuls choose to return home to found companies and generate jobs and economic activity.

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