In early 2020, a conversation with a fellow Indian immigrant friend in the US began along familiar lines – rhapsodising on immigration hassles and bureaucratic visa limbos. A state of immigrant purgatory and constant uncertainty has been par for the course for many years now.
In the sense, the ground beneath your feet is never solid; as for many high-skilled immigrants, the Green Card wait gets longer, visa restrictions and renewals and the lack of luck in the lottery precludes a sense of ‘settling down’.
My friend suddenly found a sense of optimism in her voice and said, “well, all we need to do is wait until January 2021”. I was flummoxed, and how her alluding to a then-potential Biden victory would somehow ameliorate her immigration woes. She unequivocally stated that Biden was pro-immigration, so ergo, it would easily be “happier days”.
Naturally, I was both bewildered and bemused as to how she could think that one of the largest macroeconomic events of the year, the world’s most-watched election, a geopolitical event of epic consequences, one that by itself would immediately impact a micro-entity such as one individual with one job and one immigration status.
To the extent that I earlier penned this op-ed, on why a Biden presidency is unlikely to affect the current immigration conundrum.
As I underlined, the fallacy is assuming that Biden within his first hundred days in office, facing an economic morass, mass unemployment levels and an unprecedented health crisis in over a century, will prioritise reforming or addressing the visa backlog for high-skilled immigrants.
The Immigration Quandary: A Bureaucratic Labryinth
If I were to analogise the current imbroglio to puppet talking heads, I would say it’s important to understand that puppets don’t work in isolation; there is a puppeteer and puppet strings that operate behind the scenes.
While Trump may seem the scarier puppet on immigration – making incendiary remarks on immigrants and immigration – Biden, like Obama, seems the more amiable Pinocchioesque friendly puppet.
However, the invisible strings here would be machinations of plenty of other lobbyists, Congressmen and senators, who have a hard, vehement stance against immigration and high-skilled worker visas, and plenty of other anti-immigration hawks, such as Stephen Miller, who may not be in the public eye.
The immigration quandary is a complex bureaucratic labyrinth that supersedes the simplicity of just an executive order from the Commander-in-Chief.
Immigration Policies: Throwback To Obama Era
While reports allude to Biden aiming for comprehensive immigration reform and increasing the number of high-skilled immigrant visas, it is important to remember that even under his former boss, Barack Obama, a progressive liberal on immigration, Obama did precious little to address the H-1B quota issue. Obama, too, was seen as a friendly face, known for his conviviality and amiability to the plight of immigrants. However, Obama addressed a different immigration issue altogether.
A lot of the immigration reforms under Obama were aimed at DACAs (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DREAMers – and accentuated and eased a pathway for citizenship for plenty of undocumented immigrants.
Obama did precious little, and some would argue, nothing at all, to address or fix the broken H-1B system.
Indian IT Firms Have Exploited H-1B Loopholes in The Past
Indian IT companies have long been in the eye of the storm of US lawmakers for abusing and exploiting the H-1B system and are unlikely to get a ‘hall pass’ anytime soon.
Bipartisanship in this political climate is indeed rare, however sadly, this may be one issue where administrations from both parties have been equally derelict and rigid. As quoted here, some immigration law firms have cited that “US politicians, for years, Democrat or Republican, even under the Obama administration, do not want the H-1B. It’s going to continue to get more and more restricted.”
The ‘Fairness For High-Skilled Immigration Act’
And despite the ballyhoo and euphoria lauded on the first and only Indian American and female Vice President, Kamala Harris, is unlikely to and is little evinced will accentuate the need to address the immigration pangs of the overseas Indian worker.
Although this week, Senator Harris lent her support as the United States Senate unanimously passed the S.386 bill or the ‘Fairness for High-Skilled Immigration Act’.
The bill eliminates the 7 percent country cap for employment-based immigration visas, and as the film ‘For Here Or To Go’ accurately portrays, that this will ameliorate the woes that thousands of Indian immigrants face as they get stuck in between the H-1B lottery, and more specifically the H-1B to Green Card transition.
Presently, Indian nationals account for half of the skilled employer-sponsored applicants, but the earlier cap precluded more than. 90 percent of the applications receiving Green Cards, and hence the backlog morass.
The lead proponents have been Senator Mike Lee from Utah and Senator Kevin Cramer from North Dakota, both members of the GOP.
In today’s immigration climate, many Democrats’ immigration outlook embodies the words enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: ‘give me your tired, your poor’. This, while some of the Republicans have become extremely hawkish to the point of espousing ‘restrictive immigration’.
This was evinced as the former US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Halley, excoriated the President-Elect on immigration, forewarning that Biden would be “too liberal” on immigration, overturning outgoing President Trump’s immigration laws and providing amnesty to illegals, one that she said would impinge on legal immigration and reward illegal immigrants for breaking the law through amnesty.
While both Biden and Harris cajoled and mollycoddled the Indian American community on the campaign trail, one would argue that this was indeed shrewd political messaging and pertinent fundraising coffers.
Why ‘Diversity’ Is Superficial
However, ‘diversity has become superficial’. Let me explain. As I wrote for The Quint earlier on the passport issue, the ‘Indian American’ community that Biden and Harris spoke to earlier, is a different Indian diaspora, (read: naturalised or born American citizens), the ones who don’t need to necessarily worry about H-1B visas, Green Card backlogs.
In some sense, immigration privileges are akin to being born with limbs; it’s taken for granted – and the privilege aspect is less prominent – until you encounter those devoid of it, to briefly experience that tinge of epiphanic empathy.
In the last two decades, Indian Americans have certainly become more vocal on issues and there has been a significant increase in representation on the Hill (Capitol Hill), and the onset of several roundtables and convening forums for proliferating causes pertaining to the US-India strategic partnership.
However, one could argue, that unlike the Hispanic community (a large portion of the DACAs), they remain far less vocal in terms of clamouring for H-1B reforms and mitigating the Green Card backlogs for fellow brethren.
The American Dream May Have Migrated To Canada
In California, there is a signboard that reads “H-1B problems, pivot to Canada”. Apart from the easier immigration laws, there is a distinct irony here.
In my years of living in Singapore and the United States, the irony is that you could spend years as a resident and never come close to becoming a permanent resident. Whereas in Canada, one can now apply for becoming a permanent resident, without even being a resident.
Perhaps the country beginning with a ‘C’ that is really benefitting at American expense is Canada.
All distressed US workers and an exodus of talent, perhaps the reverse brain drain, are now finding their ‘true north’ and welcoming warmth for immigrants, in the coldest of places.
The American Dream is alive, except it may have moved north – to Canada.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC, and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)