June 14, 2007

Borders in the mind

This article originally appeared in The Indian Express on June 14, 2007.

What could until last week have been President George W. Bush’s crowning domestic policy achievement has instead become another reminder of his depreciated political capital in Washington. A landmark immigration bill that was supposed to provide the greatest reform to US immigration in two decades has stalled in the US Congress. Some advocates worry it may already be dead.

Indians have focused on the bill for its impact on H-1B visas and the acquisition of green cards. But the legislation has been fiercely debated in the United States almost solely on the implications it would have on illegal immigrants. The illegal immigrant issue is nothing to scoff at; the numbers involved are staggering, even by Indian standards, with estimates of clandestine migrants varying between seven and twenty million. It is no surprise that the plight of a few hundred thousand Indian white-collar workers has been all but overlooked by the US media.

Indian lobby groups, US software companies and free market enthusiasts have been ardently advocating an increase in the number of H-1B high-skilled worker visas and the easier acquisition of green cards for such workers. Though their arguments have been largely well-articulated, their efforts are unlikely to sway US legislators on both sides of the political aisle who support protectionist economic policies.

The immigration debate’s impact on highly skilled Indian employees has slipped under the radar, but the criticism of outsourcing and employee-based immigration will persist. On the plus side, corporate pressure from Microsoft, Google, NASSCOM and USINPAC, among others, to dismantle barriers for these workers, will continue unabated.

It is important to keep in mind that immigration reforms of relatively small magnitude have taken place at regular intervals. The H-1B visa, in its current form, was created in 1990 to increase the number of highly skilled, non-immigrant workers in the US. The visa’s numbers were threatened in 1996 when curbs on employment-based immigration were considered; increased in 1998, due in large part to the Y2K bug scare; and decreased after the scare proved unfounded in 2001. It is still possible for H-1B increases to be pushed through Congress at a later date. In fact, the odds of such legislation passing would be higher if it were not attached to such a controversial bill.

The illegal immigrant debate, meanwhile, is nothing if not messy. Americans, notorious for their monolingual tendencies, are being confronted with what may be the most significant official acknowledgment of social realities since the civil rights movement. The large number of mostly Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants in the United States have been integral to the US economy, providing low-wage agricultural, child-care and housekeeping services.

The most recent effort to reach an official verdict on their status has resulted in a bill negotiated between a bi-partisan group of legislators and the White House. It allows illegal aliens to declare themselves to authorities, pay $5000 in fines in addition to back-taxes and demonstrate a proficiency in English. In exchange, they get an extendable four-year temporary visa. The bill also increases the number of border agents, fences and other barriers to prevent further illegal crossings. But pushing the immigration bill through Congress is proving more difficult than crossing the US-Mexico border.

Critics allege that the bill provides amnesty to millions who have broken the law. The feasibility of tracking, finding and transporting illegal immigrants back to their countries of origin has been questioned, as have the moral implications of separating families in the process. Economic analysts are worried about the impact the expulsion of low-wage immigrants will have on the job market. Parents are concerned that children of illegal aliens could make use of free public school resources. Hispanics, among others, have criticised the English proficiency requirement. Liberals call the bill “unfair and unworkable,” conservatives call it an inexcusable amnesty. Riddled with compromises, it satisfies almost no one.

The bill would be an admirable effort to find a solution if only it were workable. As it is, few illegal immigrants are likely to accept such small compensation for the substantial costs and uncertainty that the bill would impose upon them. Though the debate surrounding illegal immigration may not directly impact H-1B seekers, the continuing formation of American national identity will.