FOR the millions of immigrants beckoned by the Lady with the Lighted Torch, the doors to the US may soon be closed. A Republican-led initiative, dubbed the Smith Bill, is expected to become legislation by the end of the year, limiting the worldwide exodus to the US. The impending legal measures are ostensibly aimed at curbing the entry of illegal immigrants and "criminal aliens" but will also examine and restrict legal immigration to the US from countries like India.
Michael Phulwani, a New York-based attorney, spelled out the implications of the Smith Bill for would-be Indian immigrants. Drastic alterations to the current family-sponsored categories of US visas are envisaged. Unmarried adult sons and daughters of Indo-US citizens, for instance, will no longer qualify for immigration to the US. Nor will married progeny and their families, and siblings of US citizens, irrespective of age and marital status.
"The only silver lining in the cloud is that permanent residents will still be able bring in their spouses and children," says Phulwani. "The one positive aspect of the elimination of other categories is that the waiting time for spouses and children will be shortened. Also, the new law might eliminate the current procedure called 'ageing out', which means that petitions for children under 21 filed by Green Card holders become null and void if they cross that age limit during the long wait." The new laws are also likely to raise the experience requirements for working visas, making it much more difficult for companies to bring in foreign professionals into the US.
In a country like the US, whose multiethnic vertebrae somewhat blur the distinction between who is "American" and who is not, the proposed legislation has predictably sparked off a heated public debate. Surging joblessness has led to the naive argument that restricting the entry of foreigners would open up avenues for the nation's citizens. The ambiguity was in evidence in a recent press statement issued by Lamar Smith, Texan Republican and chairman of the immigration sub-committee in the US House of Representatives after whom the bill is named. While he took pains to praise the "work, creativity and vibrancy" of generations of immigrants, he stressed that it was time to "put the interests of Americans first".
MANY US computer companies, which have been relying increasingly on the skills of Indian professionals both at home and in India, are likely to be affected. Syntel Inc, a computer programming firm with 1,500 employees, half of them reportedly Indian, has declared that the new legislation is going to ricochet on US interests and efforts to stay competitive in dog-eat-dog global markets.
Syntel, like the US National Association of Manufacturers which represents more than 3,000 companies, feels it will not be possible to find enough qualified professionals within the US and many firms will be forced to move their operations overseas.
This could benefit India which offers high educational standards and is particularly popular with the US computer industry. Texas Instruments already designs some of its computer chips in India and Motorola Inc has set up programming centres in many Asian countries, including India. The Digital Equipment Corporation, Compaq and IBM are household names in the subcontinent. Moreover, highly qualified Indian experts come cheap.
Streamlined satellite links offer other pluses and avenues to circumvent the new laws. A large quantity of work could be "moved offshore", quite simply across cyberspace. The vast time difference between India and the US also makes it easy for projects to be started in the US while India sleeps and completed in India while the US is preparing to go to bed. The loss suffered by the domestic US industry may therefore turn out to be the gain of developing nations like India.
But the fate of the bill depends largely on public opinion. Given the rising unemployment and restlessness over the state of the economy, chances are that the US will soon start turning away immigrants who have historically been an integral part of the American melting pot.