Marking time in place: Why US immigration reform has stalled … and what India can do to help get it

In the US, reform of the broken national immigration system has been at the forefront of the political landscape over the past few years. Made all the more urgent by the current crisis at the Southern border, expectations that Congress would expeditiously act to produce so-called “immigration reform” have repeatedly been dashed due to partisan bickering — including about what the term “reform” even means. The tone of this discussion can be at best described as “nasty,” with progress (and thus pertinent legislation) rendered non-existent due to several factors. Primary among them are: (i) Significant internal disagreement on how best to deal with the 11 million plus illegal immigrants already resident in the U.S., coupled with the influx of approximately 60,000 accompanied and unaccompanied children and teenagers from Central America; and, (ii) The upcoming Congressional mid-term elections in November of this year (in which both parties will use unfulfilled immigration reform as an election year wedge issue). India, is the largest consumer of US employment visas, and thus a steady source of needed immigrants to the US. It has been, and should continue to remain, a legitimate stakeholder in this process; however, given its lack of success in advancing its point of view before the U.S. Congress regarding business and family visas, it may want to consider expressing its positions and priorities in a more cohesive and politically savvy manner, if it wants to be successful when immigration legislation is finally taken up in 2015. The new Modi government, India Inc, and individual Indians seeking US temporary work visas and permanent residency in the US must speak in unison, and they have to do so in a manner that conveys the sense of “mutuality” that must always be at the core of bilateral relations between nations. Further, that mutuality must not only address national policy issues between the two countries, it must also evince an alignment with key US business stakeholders (and in the case of immigration policy that means the US IT industry). The domestic interests and concerns of those US industry players hold much more sway with already hard-pressed U.S. legislators, than do the arguments of India and its well-paid lobbyists. India’s go-it-alone strategy in lobbying the US Congress last year only resulted in the bipartisan imposition of restrictive H-1B provisions that specifically targeted and punished Indian BPO companies. By adopting a lobbying strategy that failed to align itself with the U.S. IT industry, India left itself exposed and alone, leaving its position that it was somehow being “discriminated and victimized by a protectionist Congress,” to fall on deaf ears. Besides finding more common ground with the US IT industry, there is another reason that India missed an opportunity to exert any real influence on US immigration policy in recent years. The main focus of the US-India relationship from the American perspective has been the lack of progress in bilateral trade negotiations between the two countries (such as the perceived lack of WTO conformity by India, and its refusal to liberalize its economic sector, as evidenced by stalled progress on the FDI front, particularly with regard to multi-brand retail). India may have erroneously been advised that the immigration issue as it pertained to India was occurring in “vertical isolation,” but the fact is that absent a marked departure from the current divergent trade policies between the two countries, it is difficult to see how the U.S. Government, be it the Obama Administration or the US Congress, is going to feel compelled to support immigration reform legislation that contains the type of H-1B and other visa program relief India and its BPO sector are seeking (much less per country limit relief for categories such as the EB-2 visa and regarding family reunification, which would significantly reduce backlogs in both for Indian nationals) without equal concessions on the Indian side with respect to trade. At a recent conference in Mumbai, we were speaking about the prospects of immigration reform in the waning days of the current Congress. After the speech, a young woman in the Indian BPO industry came up and asked, “Why does America hate us so much?” A bit stunned she was asked what she meant, to which she replied, “You know the US discriminates against us simply because we want to go there and work” (clearly speaking to the perceived disadvantages India believes it suffers with the H-1B program). Pausing for a moment to consider her comments, the response was, “but might not America claim the same when it comes to FDI in multi-brand retail in India?” To which she responded without a moment’s hesitation, “oh, but that’s different…” Only it’s not different. It’s exactly the same, in the sense that each of our countries, and their respective business communities, have the absolute right to pair off issues they regard as competing, even if the subject matter is not exactly the same. India wants immigration reform but the U.S. wants trade reform, and so the U.S. has the absolute right to link one to the other, regardless of India’s view that the only issue it wants to discuss is immigration. Consequently, perhaps India and its business constituents would fare better on the US legislative front if they accepted that the concerns of the US government and its business community constituents about the need for greater mutuality on the part of India as regards trade issues plays an equally important part in any discussions about India’s concerns over US immigration policy.

Posted at India Incorporated here.