By Rafia Zakaria
18 Feb, 2015
WHEN US President Obama visited India a few weeks ago, there was much whispering between the leaders of the two countries. One of the softly spoken demands that the Indians put before the American president was the issue of H-1B visas, the immigration category through which India sustains its multi-billion-dollar technology outsourcing interests in the United States.
As leaders do before tricky requests, President Obama nodded and promised he would do his best to ensure that this was done, everyone including the Indians knowing that he has not yet been able to implement the changes in the US immigration system that he proposed months earlier.
The H-1B visa category in the United States, one of the few employment-based categories allowing a path to citizenship, is currently capped at 60,000 visas a year. So intensely competitive is this realm that the quota is met in four or five days, when the USCIS, that manages immigration, opens it every April. This April is unlikely to be any different, with those unable to obtain a spot being shunted back to their home countries; or, and only if they’re lucky, they can languish in some interim status until the next year, awaiting the next quota with the hope that fortune and numbers will both be kinder.
The plight of H-1B visa seekers did receive some attention in the last set of reforms (as yet unimplemented) that President Obama announced last year. According to these, if you did manage to make it into the quota, the spouse of the H-1B visa holder would, unlike previous years, be permitted to work, thus permitting him/her to contribute to the family income without obtaining independent immigration status of his/her own.
It is easy to see why the Indians are clamouring to have more friendly regulations with regard to the H-1B visa. By permitting Indian expatriates in the United States to gain a foothold amid the technology giants of Silicon Valley, the H-1B visa category has encouraged the formation of global connections, all of which have in turn whetted the Indian technology sector.
On the individual level, scoring an H-1B visa, whether it is by an Indian, a Pakistani or another, represents the break of a lifetime; its permission to stay and work as a skilled worker in the US is a direct ticket to an upper- middle-class life in one of the richest countries in the world.
Indeed, other than the 60,000-a-year skilled/technical worker visas, there are few such avenues that provide a solidly merit-based route to life in richer lands.
Recent economic downturns in the European Union have seen the emergence of a citizenship market but it is hardly one based on merit or skill. Greek and Cyprus have both begun ‘golden visa’ programmes designed to attract wealthy Chinese investors to their countries in lieu of hefty investments or real estate purchases. The cheapest one, it is believed, is offered by Latvia, which offers citizenship and hence visa-less access to 28 European countries.
The British version of the golden visa is among the world’s most expensive, requiring £3 million in investment and five years of residency before one can have a British passport.
The wrecked economies of Europe are hungry and eager to attract investment from wherever it can come, promising belonging and the tarnished gleam of a now dissipated superiority before the denizens of former colonies, the rich of the less developed but more rapidly growing world.
But if doors have been opened to investors, they have been shut to nearly all others. Asylum-seekers, refugees and unskilled workers are being turned away to die in the open seas as they try to sneak into Australia or Italy or Britain. No less fortunate are skilled workers who have obtained education and training in the West and wish to stay and work there. This is why the H-1B visa category, one of the few of its kind in the world, is the subject of so much contention and attention.
Even as President Obama left India, Indian business owners were complaining about discrimination to their nationals in the visa category. Krishnakumar Natarajan, the CEO of Mindtree, a software exporter, complained that the rejection rate for Indian applicants was 40pc. It was unclear how he arrived at the statistic or whether it was produced by the fact that such a surfeit of Indian applicants aims for the 60,000 that 40pc are unable to fall within the allotments.
While much conversation and negotiation takes place between Pakistan and the US on various issues, the one concerning the ability of skilled Pakistani workers to live and work in America is seemingly of low priority, if at all. It is a pity, of course, given that Pakistan too is a labour-exporting country and Pakistani workers reportedly sent back over $10m in just half of the year.
While these are not figures limited to skilled workers, Pakistan’s inability to see their export as a means of revitalising its own economy and of ensuring return investments suggests a short-sightedness that does not seem to plague those across the border. Instead of getting sidelined by arguments about staying and leaving and patriotism and such, the Indian government and policymakers seem to recognise the value of ensuring that their best get access to working in the most competitive environment, having confidence in the reality that eventually those skills will contribute to the growth of industry at home.
No such faith, of course, is to be found in Pakistan. The ability of skilled Pakistanis to compete for H-1B visas and avail themselves of the benefits is a topic that never seems to make the agenda of any bilateral talks between Pakistan and the United States. It is marginalised as always by more crucial concerns, aid and weapons all ever more important than the future of the skilled Pakistani worker.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.