What exactly US President Donald Trump intends to do about the H1B in the near future has Indian IT perched on the edge of their seats in nervous anticipation, if not anxiety.
There's good reason for their paranoia. Around 65 percent of the 65,000 H1B petitions approved a few years ago (out of around 230,000) went to outsourcing firms in India of the likes of TCS, Cognizant, Infosys, and Wipro. These companies make a good chunk of their annual revenue from sending engineers to the US on projects, after which they are supposed to return home. Infosys, for instance, rakes in at least 60 percent of its revenues in this fashion.
Any decision, whether a cap on the visas or another hefty fee increase, will be a blow to an industry that is already seeing flatlining growth and a murky, if not perilous future.
So when Trump started ranting against the program last year while on the campaign trail, alarm bells in the industry began to ring. A March 2016 post on Trump's website quoted him as saying: "The H1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay." He later added: "If I am president, I will not issue any H1B visas to companies that replace American workers and my Department of Justice will pursue action against them."
Some say that, despite all this fire and brimstone, Trump has been contradictory and ambiguous, pointing to a rash of statements such as the one made during a Republican debate in March last year when he declared that he was "softening" his position, because "we have to have talented people in this country." However, he has also on multiple occasions talked about enhancing the tech talent in the country by giving graduate students an easy path to obtaining greencards, which could be more what that statement was about than anything else.
That said, his choice for attorney general, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, is a ferocious and vocal critic of the H1B and will no doubt do his best to influence the president if his nomination goes through.
A MIDDLE GROUND?
Recent events have deepened the mystery. According to Reuters, Trump's senior advisor Stephen Miller suggested deep-sixing the existing lottery system for the H1Bs and replacing it with visa petitions for jobs that pay the highest salaries. This is something that the Electrical and Electronics Engineers, that industry's largest professional association, approves.
Reuters also suggests that at a meeting with the country's tech titans a month or so ago, Trump was apparently not so energised to take a scythe to the visa program and "seemed to be searching for middle ground." Apparently, a dozen of the top tech executives in the country were in a huddle with him to try and figure this out. Amongst them was Microsoft's Satya Nadella, who apparently tried to impress upon Trump the importance of being able to recruit from abroad when necessary. (In fact, both Nadella and Sundar Pichai, the boss at Google, probably benefitted from the H1B in their own career trajectories, which is as good a case as any for the benefits of the H1B.)
The ultimate irony however is that Trump has himself used the H2B programs to hire low-skill workers from Mexico, a visa program that has been heavily criticized by US government watchdogs for failing to protect American workers' rights. Trump's team will also not disclose whether his wife Melania was on an H1B -- she has admitted to being on a visa -- in the 1990s when she was modeling in New York.
Nevertheless, what matters here is Trump's inclinations within the tech firmament. What seems interesting about Trump's role at the meeting was his apparent interest in potentially architecting the best solution for all -- dramatically different from his rhetoric on the stump. He was apparently keen to gauge whether one of the proposals on the table during the meeting that aimed at boosting the application fees as an effective way to thwart bulk filing of the visas was acceptable or not by the CEOs, to which they said that they had no objections. Reuters mentions that one of its sources at the meeting "didn't think that the president was hostile to H1B visas," which is a dramatically different message to what was thought of last year.
A LONG HAUL
Meanwhile, most legal experts say that while some tweaks and minor tinkering can be done to the existing H1B process, effecting radical change would require a lengthy legal process with plenty of opposition in the form of challenges in courtrooms. Even changing the cap on the visa apparently will have to go through a Congressional approval process.
While that may be so, it is still probably an excruciating waiting game for Indian IT.