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Last Updated Saturday May 20 2017 04:52 AM IST

The sword of Damocles hanging over Indian Diaspora

T.P. Sreenivasan
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The sword of Damocles hanging over Indian Diaspora

The Indian diaspora, on which the sun never sets, has faced many challenges in the past. The exoduses from Burma, Uganda and Fiji, whether to India or to neighboring countries were traumatic, but eventually, they turned out to be blessings, at least for major sections of the migrants.

Many Indians still live in Burma either as paddy farmers or traders, Indians from Uganda worship Idi Amin in their luxurious homes in the UK for having sent them out to a more secure and developed country and Fiji Indians are doing better in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. Indians continue to migrate not only to traditional destinations but also to new frontiers in search of education or work. Indians are noticed only when their security is in danger because of new policies or conflicts.

Today, however, the Indian diaspora appears to be heading for major challenges because of the new nationalism emerging in different parts of the globe. The "natives" are asserting their rights, as happened in Fiji, localization of jobs has become fashionable in the Gulf and the emergence of Donald Trump has challenged the very fundamentals of the US being a country of migrants.

The sword of Damocles hanging over Indian Diaspora President-elect Donald Trump pumps his fist after giving his acceptance speech as his wife Melania Trump, right, and their son Barron Trump follow him during his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in New York. AP

The concern around the globe on the unpredictability of Trump is particularly focused on the likely plight of the immigrants. Although Trump had talked primarily about Muslims and Hispanics, his theory that immigration is the root of all evil is likely to hurt the Indian diaspora also.

Trumpism is a genie that has been let out of the bottle and cannot be put back. Therefore, it goes without saying that his policies will center around the theory that the fewer the migrants in the US, the better it will be for the nation.

Such an approach has appealed to a large number of people, particularly the whites, who have felt that the minorities of various kinds have been more privileged than them. Losing jobs to the migrants and outsourcing is a lament that began to be heard right from the beginning of the economic meltdown and Trump was not the first to promise that outsourcing will be reduced and work permits will be brought down.

At the same time, it has been realized that outsourcing is a win-win situation for the US economy and that foreign workers are essential, particularly in the IT industry. A balance has to be struck between the imperatives of local sentiment and the dictates of international cooperation. Several other countries too have toyed with the idea of indigenization, without being able to implement it.

Trump, of course, fanned the flames of xenophobia and anti-migration sentiments by specifically mentioning that Muslims and Hispanics were candidates for deportation and building of walls, even though, as an international businessman, he should have known the need for interdependence of nations and a liberal immigration policy.

The sword of Damocles hanging over Indian Diaspora

The initial alarm had already been tempered towards the end of his campaign, as demonstrated by the fact that he was able to win some votes of the minorities in the battle ground states.

The transformation of candidate Trump into President Trump is inevitable and there are signs of thaw in his extreme positions on several issues. From suggestions of massive deportation of various categories of migrants, he has moved to action against illegal migrants and the great wall of Mexico has begun to recede.

But, as has been indicated in his agenda for the first 100 days, some action against "abuse of visas" will be taken. The appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions, who has a strong position on migration, as the Attorney General, is a confirmation of the emerging policy.

Amid the chaos of the various and contradictory pronouncements by Trump during the campaign, observers had identified certain strands in his thinking, which might be favourable to India. His strong position on terrorism, his suspicion of Pakistan and his business interests in India were some of these features.

He had also participated in an Indian community event, where he declared himself as a fan of Hindus and India. But, on the practical level, there was apprehension that he would restructure or restrict the work authorization visa (H-1B visa) that had benefited thousands of technically qualified Indians to build their fortunes in the US. As expected, his agenda for the first 100 days has inevitably included a call for "a scrutiny of abuses in America’s work visa system", which will have implications for the Indians in the IT sector, present and future.

The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa, which allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreigners in specialty occupations. The regulations define a "specialty occupation" as requiring theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge in a field of human endeavor and requiring the attainment of a bachelor's degree or its equivalent as a minimum (with the exception of fashion models, who must be "of distinguished merit and ability").

The foreign worker must also possess state license, if required to practice in that field. H-1B work-authorization is strictly limited to employment by the sponsoring employer.

The H-1B visa was the main instrument of Indian migration to the United States of various categories, ranging from nurses, doctors, engineers and teachers to IT professionals, many of whom have become permanent residents and citizens over the years. Although the declared policy is only to scrutinize abuses, the objective is to find jobs for the unemployed Americans, and the process will inevitably reduce the visas and restrict Indian migration.

The silver lining, however, is that Trump is a businessman, who will not hurt industries and once he realizes the folly of throwing the baby with the bath water, his eagerness to clear the swamp may assume a more realistic approach.

The very acute shortage of skilled labour in the US will not permit an immediate switch to indigenization and it is estimated that it will take a minimum period of seven to nine years to bring about a significant change. The instinct will be to preserve the advantages of the economy rather than to disturb it at this point.

But the fact remains that there will be a period of uncertainty during the review process. Attention will focus on the fact that a majority of temporary work visas are issued each year by the US to Indian workers, mostly in the information technology and related sectors.

In 2015, 64 per cent of the 85,000 H1B visas allowed in the US were issued to Indians, including 84 per cent of visas issued for technology jobs. These include 65,000 visas for foreign nationals based abroad, and 20,000 visas for foreign students in the US.

The large issuance of H1B visas to foreign nationals, particularly to one country, has repeatedly been criticized by members of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Many of the conditions under which American companies can hire foreign graduates do not need them to first try and hire US nationals, a loophole most criticized by opponents of the H1B program.

Due to the existential threat that the Indian diaspora faces today, because of the strengthening of nativism in many countries, the other concerns of the diaspora have receded to the background.

The issues like welfare, voting rights and the image of the Indian workers have not disappeared and they are likely to come to the fore, once the basic issue of survival is resolved. If history is any guide, the diaspora will find ways and means to continue abroad, even if it means sacrifices and adjustments.

(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora.)

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