The US visa threat to Indians, feverishly flagged as soon as Donald Trump won the presidential elections, seems to be inching frighteningly close towards reality. Pretty soon, it may become even more difficult, almost impossible, for Indians and others to get immigrant visas to Trumpland if a proposal made by two US senators and endorsed and supported by the president is passed by the US Congress.
The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, proposed in February this year and revised earlier this month by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, is designed to significantly reduce the number of immigrants who can obtain green cards and other visas to the US. The Act aims to reduce the number of legal migrants allowed in the US by 40 per cent in the first year and by 50 per cent over a decade. The bill aims to reduce the number of immigrants to 6,37,960 in its first year and to 5,39, 958 by its tenth year, from 10,51,031 in 2015. If passed, the bill would radically transform the US immigration landscape. It would remove the pathways to permanent residency that are currently in place for siblings and adult children of US citizens and green card holders, while also limiting the opportunities available to their spouses and minor children.
But most worryingly for jobseekers, the proposed legislation would also eliminate various employment-based visa programmes, which would be replaced by a difficult-to-achieve point system. This new system would reward prospective immigrants with points on the basis of their age, level of education, extraordinary achievements, high salary, and proficiency in the English language, among other criteria.
The RAISE Act, openly supported by President Donald Trump, would significantly affect the South Asian community in general and Indians in particular, for Indians form a sizeable chunk of US immigrants. Indians and Chinese apply for immigration in very large numbers, and would consequently be the worst hit if the bill is passed. However, as it awards points for proficiency in English, it would hurt the Chinese more. The bill also aims to eliminate the current diversity visa lottery and limit the number of immigrants offered permanent residency to 50,000 a year.
The bill claims to promote merit-based immigration over that based on family ties. Although it only seeks to reduce residency green cards, it should be viewed in conjunction with other proposals that target visas. If passed, the new law would most certainly affect Indian students too.
The proposal comes at a time when the US government is considering large-scale changes to the H1B employment visa programme, which proposes to increase the salary threshold level for workers and make it more difficult for them to get a visa.
The bill is among a series of legislative moves to reduce the number of foreign workers and immigrants in an US under the Trump administration. It was tabled soon after the president failed to repeal the Obamacare law, one of his key campaign promises. It appeals to the president’s core constituency of conservative white voters and may be seen as an attempt to divert attention from a major political defeat on Obamacare.
Says Shivendra Singh, vice-president, Nasscom, “If enacted, the RAISE Act would make it more difficult for Indians to become US citizens in the same way that it would make it more difficult for citizens of other countries to become US citizens. Its most significant impact would be the 50 per cent cut in green card availability.”
Although, on the surface, it is unlikely to affect students aiming for a US education, the bill may make their employment there extremely difficult. Says US based IT and software consultant Bishwajit Choudhury, “Technically, there should not be any impact on the H-1B visa application or the IT Sector by the RAISE Act. However, it would have an impact on the capability of the H-1B worker for immigration application—i.e. Green Card application, as most H-1B workers would struggle to meet the criteria of 30 points.”
Particularly crucial is the proposed merit based point system. The bill proposes to admit immigrants into the US on the basis of a strict point system, where those applicants with the highest score would be rewarded with US residency. It says that applicants have to score 30 points to become eligible for US residency, making it almost impossible for Indian applicants, especially those looking to study or work in the US.
Says Rogelio Caceres, co-founder and CMO of the US-based LCR Capital Partners, “In the point-based system, unless you are a Nobel prize or an Olympic medal winner, you cannot get 30 points. You also need to have a perfect score in English and three times the level of salary than the US average to get a job in the US. Today, college salaries are
nowhere near that. Indian students cannot manage to get the $1,30,000-1,35,000 salary that is required to meet the minimum thresholds.”
According to a recent study conducted by US-based executive search and recruiting firm Korn Ferry, the average annual starting salary for a 2017 college graduate is approximately $50,000. A US Census Bureau report published in September 2016 cites the median household income at $55,775 in 2015. Therefore, to qualify under the new plan, a job-seeking Indian college graduate would be required to earn at least $110,000 annually (twice the average US household income and more than double the average annual starting salary for a US college graduate) to reach the required threshold of 30 points.
How would the points for an average international student, aiming for a job in the US, add up? The vast majority of aspiring Indian students are between the ages of 18 and 21, which would award them six points. If these students were fluent in English, they would be entitled to 12 points instead. However, to qualify for these additional points, students would need to display a higher proficiency in the English language than the average American citizen! Additionally, a job-seeking student would need to possess a US-based professional degree and/or doctorate. Also, she would need to convince a US employer to offer her a salary of over 200 per cent of the median household income.
Choudhury says that with the new proposal of increased required annual salary of $1,30,000 under the RAISE Act, an H-1B Visa holder who wants to stay on in the US would struggle to meet the criteria required to get higher points for yearly earning. Most of H-1B visa holders applying for Green Cards are more than 30 years old, and so would be awarded less points (for Age criteria). And as for their English language skills, they would earn less points as that is not tested (like TOEFL for those seeking admission to US colleges) and therefore is likely to be considered as average.
The concern is that if the RAISE Act were made law as it stands, the consequences could be dire, as advanced companies would face new barriers in hiring workers, making it easier for competitors in China, India and Europe to edge out the US in trade.
The good news for Indians is that there is a lot of opposition from most Democrats and many Republicans against this bill and the chances of it becoming a law are slim. Also, it is rare in the US for a bill to be passed in its original form, so there may be large-scale changes in it before it goes through a bipartisan Congress. Moreover, says Caceres, “The legislative priorities before the US Congress are different and this bill is not top priority for them.”
Says Singh, “While we take the proposal seriously, prominent US authorities and experts have all advised us that the RAISE Act will not become law.” Thousands of prospective Indian immigrants are keeping their fingers crossed in the hope that it doesn’t.