Citing unemployment as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, US President Donald Trump on Monday issued an executive order suspending new visas for foreign workers, including the H-1B visa for highly skilled individuals, until the end of 2020. The move will disproportionately hurt Indian citizens, who have received as much as 70% of H-1B visas over the past five years, and both US and Indian tech companies that rely on them for smooth operations.
Though temporary, the move fits in with the anti-immigration rhetoric that fueled Trump’s rise and eventual win in the 2016 US elections. Stephen Miller, the architect of the administration’s immigration policy, has argued that worker visas displace Americans from jobs that would otherwise go to them.
The order has earned the administration widespread condemnation, from tech companies, American entrepreneurs, human rights’ organisations and even members of the Republican party to which Trump belongs.
Among the most strident critics have been tech companies in the United States, which are the largest beneficiaries of the H-1B visa programme, with the bulk of those going to highly skilled workers in the IT sector.
The executive order has also come in for particular criticism from India, since Indian citizens account for more than 70% of the H-1B visas every year, according to the External Affairs Ministry.
In December 2019, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that he had brought up the question of changes to American visa rules. “I cannot overstate the importance of the flow of talent for Indo-American ties,” he said. “That was a point I make that look, this is important for you, it is important for us. It’s important for the relationship. So let’s work together to make sure this stays sort of open and vibrant and active.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also alluded to this when Trump visited India in February 2020. “The most important foundations of this special friendship between India and America are our people-to-people relations,” Modi said. “Be it professionals or students, Indian diaspora in America has been the biggest contributor to this... These ambassadors of India are not only contributing to the economy of the US with their talent and hard work. Rather, they are also enriching American society with their democratic values and rich culture.”
Yet despite these statements, the US administration went ahead with plans to suspend the H-1B visa process, a move that many fear will not be lifted at the end of the year.
A few others took to Twitter to explicitly address the Indian citizens who would likely be affected by the changes to the visa rules.
Among the most vocal critics were entrepreneurs, executives at tech companies and start-up founders who all cited the H-1B visa programme as one of the main reasons that Silicon Valley remains a place of tremendous innovation – a point that has also been made by right-wing commentators in the United States.