Brace Again for the Ugly Head

US President Obama ordered a few immigration reforms using his executive powers. Immigration reforms in the US were much awaited and Obama’s recent orders showed gumption and sense of urgency. Though the crux of Obama’s orders were on legalizing undocumented workers in the US, there are some ramifications for immigrant tech workers, especially the thorny H1B issue, which is of interest to India’s global services sector.

On the overall, the outlook for India-centric services companies for professional visas and permanent residency is slightly improved in the short-term. The orders, however, do not significantly impact the operating model for these companies. There are lots of areas where more clarity is needed. Ultimately, the true color of the orders would emerge only when the immigration administration conveys its interpretation of what exactly these orders mean and how would they be implemented.

Here are the pieces of indicative good news:

  • Rules regarding permanent residency or green card would be eased. Currently, there is a huge backlog of H1B workers who have filed for their green card and they have been waiting for years for the green card to get processed. The spouses of H1B holders are not allowed to work till the family gets the green card. If the process of green card is eased, then scores of H1B workers in the US would be benefited, their spouses (often highly educated) would add to the talent pool.
  • Easy portability of visas which means visa holders can change jobs easier. The H1B visa was tied to an employer and it was used by the employer as a tool to bind visa holders who would not quit and who were meted out differential treatment like slower growth, lower salary. Easy portability of visas gives power to the immigrant employee in being able to choose better employers.
  • There would be greater clarity on ‘specialized knowledge’ and that the L1 program would be reformulated. This would enable easier movement of senior executives and professionals between countries and the US.

But the elephant is not yet out of the door. These reforms have not yet been enacted into law for which it needs to be passed by the Senate. None less than Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), famous for his antipathy towards immigrant labor in the tech industry, is expected to be the chairman of the judiciary committee. The national sentiment in the US would once again veer towards backlash on immigrant labor.

The net effect of Obama’s courageous step is that it brings back the topic of immigration, something which was muted for a while, back into the high decibel mode. Indian companies will have to contend with that.

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