US President Barack Obama’s immigration reform push late on Thursday seeks to significantly liberalise the visa regime for students, professionals and budding entrepreneurs, as the US tries to stop those with high potential and specialised skills from leaving its shores.
Once the reforms are implemented, the US government expects 400,000 highly-skilled workers to be eligible for visas.
“Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us, or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs here, create businesses here, create industries right here in America? That’s what this debate is all about,” Obama said in his power-packed address.
Students pursuing courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programmes in US universities can look forward to a prolonged stay, compared to the 29 months they are currently entitled to under the optional practical training (OPT) programme, till they secure work visas. Also, the OPT programme will be expanded to cover more courses. Typically, the programme is for 12 months, extendable by 17 months for students pursuing STEM courses. The duration of the extended stay hasn’t been specified yet.
According to estimates, there are about 200,000 Indian students under the OPT programme as of now.
To fuel the US’s entrepreneurial spirit, Obama also sought key administrative reforms, which would better utilise a provision that allowed a non-citizen with an advanced degree or an exceptional ability to seek US citizenship or a green card without an employer’s sponsorship. In case ‘inventors, researchers, and founders of start-ups’ who might not qualify for the provision but have been awarded substantial US investor financing or hold the promise of innovation and job creation, they will be offered ‘parole’, which will allow them to temporarily pursue research and development in the US, rather than abroad.
Indian-American Vivek Wadhwa, a technology entrepreneur, academic and fellow at Stanford Law University, who has been campaigning for an easier immigration regime for entrepreneurs, was quoted as saying 44 per cent of all founders in Silicon Valley were of Indian origin.
In a statement, India’s information technology lobby body, Nasscom, said it believed “these measures will help attract and retain talent in the US by addressing some of the operational and social issues, alleviating skills shortages to some extent”. It, however, sought more clarity on some of the key announcements.
The reforms are silent on the long-pending demand of industry to increase the quota of H-1B visas, used by Indian software companies to send workers to their centres in the US.
However, there could be some clarity on the L-1 category of visas, used to send professionals with highly specialised skills. A few years ago, industry had been reporting a rejection rate of 40-50 per cent for L-1 visas.
Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the direction from Obama would likely include an expansive definition of “specialised knowledge”, which would provide cheer to outsourcers, as they were the largest beneficiaries of the L-1 category.
In his speech, Obama also recognised the fact that the process for giving green cards (US citizenship) needed a significant overhaul. According to industry estimates, securing permanent US citizenship might take between 11 and 72 years, forcing many to return to their countries after their work visas expired. Directions have been given to hasten the processing of green cards for skilled individuals, apart from allowing seekers to change employers while they wait for approval. Also, spouses of individuals with lawful permanent resident status or the permission to seek green cards can find work during their stay in the US.
“All these are very positive measures, but we are yet to see the nuts and the bolts to understand the actual impact on India and Indians in the US,” said Poorvi Chothani, immigration attorney and managing partner of LawQuest, an immigration law firm in Mumbai.
In a letter to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), Jeh Charles John, secretary of homeland security, US, said, “I direct the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and USCIS develop regulations for notice and comment to expand the degree programmes eligible for OPT and extend the time period and use of OPT for foreign STEM students and graduates, consistent with law.”
To secure a work visa in the US, students have to find an employer who can sponsor it. However, often, even when students have a sponsor, they do not get work visas due to limited quotas, etc.
WHAT DO WE GET?
Students pursuing STEM courses in US universities to get extended stay after completing their courses
Clarity on L-1 visas, largely used by Indian software companies to send workers with specialised skills to the US
Directions have been given to hasten processing of green cards for skilled individuals & allowing change of employer while waiting for approval