When Simran Kaur (name changed) came to the United States from India’s Jalandhar in 2007 for her higher education, she was instantly capitavated by the country. But 13 years later, and after giving the US the “prime years of her career and life,” the allure has withered away. “Now, I wouldn’t even ask my brother to come here,” she said. “It’s no longer the place of the American Dream.”
The 36-year-old’s disenchantment with US is due to its immigration system. Kaur has been on an H-1B visa – which allows foreign workers to live and work in the US – for over a decade, the majority of which was spent working with the Department of Veteran Affairs, a government agency.
A switchover to a tech startup two years ago, a layoff and a frantic scramble to secure employment within 60 days to retain her immigrant status later, Kaur flew from New York City to India in January to meet her family and renew her visa. But it was denied, and she has been able to return to her home there since.
“I’m not alone in facing such a denial,” she said. “Because of [outgoing US President Donald] Trump’s anti-immigration policy and the administration intentionally creating regulations that hurt working immigrants like myself, there have been denials for some really ridiculous reasons.”
Spike in denials
Cyrus Mehta, immigration lawyer and adjunct professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, said that the Trump administration’s ‘Buy American, Hire American’ policy made H-1B visas harder to obtain and also made green card backlogs worse. “Because India has so many more applicants, and because it’s such a large country, people born there have far worse backlogs than anyone else,” Mehta said.
This, he said, is not the fault of the Trump administration alone. “That’s a fundamental problem in the immigration law that has not been reformed,” Mehta said. “But what Trump did was to kind of make it far harder to obtain and renew an H-1B visa, making the lives of thousands of Indians more difficult.”
According to data analysed by Statista, H-1B visa denials rose steadily under Trump – jumping from 6% in 2015 to 30% in 2020.
“There’s so much uncertainty each time you file for a renewal. If you’ve been waiting in the backlogs and this is going to be your 10th renewal, you’ve already been stuck in limbo for more than a decade,” Mehta said. “Now the terrain has become even more difficult to negotiate. Life is just going to be more uncertain and more stressful for an Indian there – because a lot of Indians are in IT.”
In June, Trump issued a ban on employment-based visas – including the H-1B visa – which split families and impacted the lives of thousands of Indians. While the executive order is due to expire at the end of the year, Mehta believes there’s a likelihood that the administration extends it.
Besides the presidential proclamations, in early October, the Trump administration also implemented new labour requirements that sharply increased the required wages for securing an H-1B visa. “Trump is introducing a lot of these proposals in panic and in the 11th hour because he wants to make sure that he puts an iron gate to prevent H-1B workers from coming to America,” said immigration lawyer Sheela Murthy. “This is really scaring companies and employees because no fresh graduate from an American university will be paid an average salary of $208,000.”
Kaur, who claims to have been a “victim of the immigration system,” said she now has her hopes pinned on the US President-elect Joe Biden reversing some of the executive orders on high-skilled employment visas issued by Trump.
Biden’s immigration policies
A policy document issued by their campaign states that the incoming Biden-Harris administration plans to increase the number of high-skilled visas and eliminate the limit on employment-based visas by country – both of which are likely to benefit Indian professionals. The number of employment-based visas is currently capped at 140,000 each year, and Biden’s campaign has promised that it will work with Congress to increase the number of visas awarded for permanent, employment-based immigration.
However, New York-based Mehta, who has been practising immigration law for over 25 years, said, “There’s only so much the administration can do through executive actions. Ultimately, if you really want to meaningfully reform immigration law, you have to change it in Congress, and the Congress remains polarised. ”
While Biden has spoken about increasing visa numbers, Mehta doesn’t see “the visa supply being increased – because, again, that has to be done by Congress.” Additionally, the incoming administration wants to ensure American jobs are protected. “So it won’t be a free ride for foreign workers,” Mehta added.
Murthy echoed that sentiment. “They don’t want to come across as being more welcoming to foreigners than to Americans,” she said. While Biden has promised that he’s going to go back on the most draconian immigration measures, Murthy said: “I don’t know how quickly everything will happen because he’s obviously going to be juggling a global pandemic.” Measures like reversing the Muslim travel ban will likely be higher on his administration’s priority list.
“The ball will start rolling in the right direction in the next 12 months,” Murthy added. “But I don’t know that all of the i’s will be dotted and the t’s will be crossed in a manner to completely eliminate four years of an absolute attack against immigrants.”