OPTing out of immigration is not an option for India or the United States

Although written for an Indian audience, given the likely significant number of Canadians studying in the US, this change, should it proceed, will have an impact on them:

Although some students return home to India after graduating, for the majority, the US academic journey is premised on continuing pursuit of the ‘American dream’. Their F-1 student visa allows a one-year (three years in case of STEM students) paid Optional Practical Training (OPT) that usually results in a full-time job, typically on an H-1B visa. Separately, tens of thousands of skilled white-collar professionals from India also come to the US on H-1B visa, for short- and long-term projects that often turn into life-long employment in the US. Over decades, these two streams have combined to form the core of a thriving Indian-American community of more than 4 million people that is America’s best educated and highest earning ethnic group.

The pandemic has not only disrupted the annual commencement ritual but also threatens to dismantle the template that led to the formation of this cohort. The destruction of the job market that has rendered some 36 million Americans jobless has all but destroyed the ‘American dream’ of millions of eventually high net worth immigrants who have made the US what it is: a rich, vibrant, innovative melting pot. Thousands of students and guest workers are currently in limbo, not knowing what the future holds, their academic planning, job prospects, and just about everything, including travel plans, on hold.

Their misery is compounded by rising nativist, xenophonic, anti-immigrant sentiment from a Trump base that sees foreign students and guest workers “stealing” American jobs. It’s an understandable sentiment in times of despair, except this was an undercurrent even before the coronavirus struck. There are other issues with this argument: The US by itself does not produce enough qualified graduates, particularly in STEM fields, to meet the needs of its industries and corporations. The reason Microsoft, Google, Apple and other companies back immigration is not because foreign workers come cheap (a fiction that ignores the fact that the labour department requires certification that they are well-paid); they do it because they need global talent.

Such a composite internationalist workforce also gives US companies a foothold into new markets. The entry of Texas Instruments, Hewlett Packard, and other companies into India in the 1980s was spearheaded by Indians working for those companies in America. This globalist engagement is lost on nativists in the US, and even in India, where for the longest time there were complaints about losing its best minds and talent before realisation dawned that “brain drain is better than brain in the drain”. India’s investment in human capital in the US and elsewhere yielded unexpected benefits, among them foreign exchange remittances that offset the $8 billion spent on foreign education and influencing global perception of India.

Of course, US nativists and critics of the guest worker visa are correct that there has been abuse of the programme. Unscrupulous body shoppers and companies have manipulated the system, and this needs cleaning up. But hosting foreign students and guest workers is a net gain for the US and for countries that send their students and workers to America. Physicist and futurist Michio Kaku calls the H-1B visa America’s “secret weapon” without which the US would be an also ran, pointing out that 50% of all PhD candidates in the US are foreign born.

The salience of immigrants has been particularly striking during the pandemic, when they have been on the frontlines. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, while 16% of the US workforce is foreign born, immigrants account for nearly 25% of physicians and dentists, 20% of engineers, 23.5% of computer specialists and almost 30% of scientists.

The skills that H-1B workers bring with them can be critical in responding to national emergencies, argues the American Immigration Council, pointing out that over the past decade eight companies currently trying to develop a coronavirus vaccine – Gilead Sciences, Moderna Therapeutics, GlaxoSmithKline, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Vir Biotechnology, and Sanofi – received approvals for 3,310 biochemists, biophysicists, chemists, and other scientists through the H-1B programme.

So opting out of immigration is not an option for the US, or for countries such as India that thrive in a myriad ways on US immigration. April was the cruellest month for travel, tourism and immigration. Rough winds did shake the darling buds of May, but may June restore reason and sanity.

Source: Darling buds of may: OPTing out of immigration is not an option for India or the United States

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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