By Will Ragatz, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Yogesh Jaiswal is at the center of the bubble. He works in the tech sector of the economy in New York City. He makes a good living, yet he’s uncertain about settling down and raising a family. Part of the reason is he’s Indian and is in the U.S. on an H1-B visa. The other part of the reason is that the Trump administration has signaled that it’s likely to seek a major overhaul of the nation’s H1-B lottery system.
Jaiswal was featured in a comprehensive story by CNBC that aired in April, the week the annual lottery opened. He told CNBC that his status is in jeopardy because he obtained his visa in 2010, and might need to wait years to obtain a green card that would signify his permanent residency and put him on a path to citizenship. Until then, he said he can’t feel fully comfortable planting his roots in America.
Jaiswal is a small cog in a well-oiled Indian information technology infrastructure that is valued at more than $150 billion dollars.
Each April, the United States selects 85,000 H1-B immigrant visa applicants in “specialty occupations,” over half of which go to Indian tech workers. That sector has been a boom for India for the last 25-30 years, with many young Indian students looking at the process as the best opportunity for economic advancement.
The media in India pays close attention to America’s H1-B visa program, and perks up each April as the lottery opens. This year, Quartz India was bleak about the future of the program in its story – Cheap Indian engineers now have no place in Donald Trump’s America.
As Donald Trump has stepped in and shaken up so many different aspects of immigrant communities, the Indian IT sector hasn’t escaped being effected. Trump has pushed severe reform to the H1-B program, and his overall rhetoric, which many have received as anti-immigrant, has stirred fear and anxiety even among young Indian tech workers already living in the United States.
Two Indian H1-B visa holders working in the tech sector were shot in February outside of a bar in Kansas. The shooter was a white man who reportedly questioned the two men, both of whom had master’s degrees in the U.S., about their immigration status and attacked them with racial insults before the shooting, including repeatedly yelling, “Get out of my country!” One of the men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, died shortly after.
For some people, that incident represents a significant change in a country that had given Indians few problems in recent years. The father of the survivor has publicly discouraged parents in India from sending their children to the United States under the current political climate.
Tejas Shah, a Chicago-based immigration lawyer, says he’s noticed the effect the incident has had on the feelings of educated Indian tech workers.
“I definitely think the shooting of that gentleman in Kansas earlier this year has had a chilling effect,” Shah says. “I think there are a lot of young people in India who were already saying, ‘you know, immigrating to the US… I’m going to wait 10 to 15 years to get my green card, a lot of uncertainty about getting a visa, I have to go through this lottery to get an H1-B,’ and then when you start to see things through this lens of, well America is now becoming an unwelcoming place, H1-B workers are being shot, it’s going to be really interesting to see where all that ends up over the course of the next few years.”
Shah says that improving economic conditions in India were already causing some potential H1-B applicants to think about staying home and working. Although the United States remains a country of great economic opportunity for skilled tech workers, there are a lot of unknowns here that may make someone think twice about immigrating, he says.
“I’ve heard stories from some businesses that they couldn’t get potential H1-B workers to commit to taking on jobs in the U.S,” Shah says. “That was the product of the workers looking at the current political climate and thinking, ‘I don’t want to work in the U.S. on an H1-B.’ As the anxiety associated with working in this country gets worse, the degree of financial reward you’re going to need to justify putting yourself in that situation is going to significantly increase.”
It’s also an option for many Indian IT workers to move to countries other than the U.S. and work for tech firms.
“IT workers are international,” says Rishi Agrawal, a business-focused attorney in Chicago. “If they don’t come here, there’s a number of other opportunities all over the world.”
Whether as a result of the changing political climate or other factors, there’s no denying the evidence. For the first time in several years, the number of H1-B applicants dropped in 2017. There were 233,000 applicants in 2015 and 236,000 last year, but that number dipped to 199,000 in April.
Yet it’s still a comfortable number of applications for the 85,000 available slots.
In the face of concerns that reducing foreign employees would harm the United States economy more than it would benefit it, Trump signed an executive order in April to overhaul the H1-B program, with the objective to “Hire American.” Trump administration officials argue that the current program encourages tech firms to hire cheaper talent from places like India, resulting in lower wages and an elimination of job opportunities for Americans.
Part of Trump’s effort has been a push to make it more difficult to acquire an H1-B visa by raising the requirements to classify a position as “skilled.” For Indian workers who still want to immigrate to the United States for economic purposes, that may require a shift in their focus, says Ananya Bhattacharya, a tech reporter who covers H1-B developments for Quartz India.
“The problem with a lot of Indian IT workers is that they were doing core IT jobs, the typical email, software repair, but now most companies want to make these workers more well-versed in machine learning and AI and more niche jobs,” Bhattacharya says. “If there is an actual overhaul, (Indian IT immigrants) will have to actually prove that their job requires them to do things the average American can’t just do, so if they’re trained better they can probably prove that more easily.”
It’s a complex situation. Many potential Indian immigrants who are put off by things like the Kansas shooting and Trump’s policies are staying in India or going elsewhere, while at the same time certain Indians are intrigued by the prospect of less competition for H1-B visas and green cards, not to mention potentially better wages in the United States.
No one can be entirely certain what will happen in the next few years of Trump’s presidency. Will Indian students and IT workers shy away from coming to the United States? If so, will tech firms in America be able to find enough qualified workers within the national borders?
Either way, Trump has shaken up a massive, thriving industry and provoked countless conversations about what the future of Indian IT immigration will look like.
In Donald Trump’s United States, uncertainty and confusion are a natural byproduct for immigrants of all backgrounds, regardless of their reasons for immigrating. Trump appears to like it that way, and if the bubble bursts, so be it.