What does Trump’s “merit-based” immigration plan mean for Indians?

America on his mind.
America on his mind.
Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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Donald Trump’s new “merit-based” immigration plan seems to be tipping the scales in favour of skilled foreign talent.

In a speech at the White House Rose Garden on May 16, the US president proposed that the share of highly-skilled immigration be bumped up significantly from the current 12% to 57%.

“It is time to begin moving towards a merit-based immigration system—one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society, and who will love and respect our country,” Trump said about the plan drawn up by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

This is good news for many Indians, experts say.

“Indians account for more than 75% of all pending employment-based green card applications,” said Vivek Tandon, founder and CEO of immigration firm EB5 BRICS. “In contrast, Indians account for just 7% of the total waiting list of family-sponsored green card applications.”

The proposal comes at a time when the Trump administration has been clamping down on the H-1B visa, toughening the criteria around specialty occupations and increasing requests for evidence (RFEs). The looming removal of work authorisation of H-4 visa-holders—spouses of H-1B workers—has also added to the uncertainty.

Even now, green cards will be allocated based on an English language test as well as a civic test—still pushing hardline America-first rhetoric.

The good…

Indians, who receive over three-quarters of the H-1B visas, which allows foreign workers to live and work in the US for up to six years, stand to benefit from the new system.

Removal of per-country limits for green card applications will help reduce processing time for Indian applicants, which can run anywhere between a long 12 years to an abysmal 150 years.

“If the system is implemented with superior technology and checks and balances, it will at least make for a more predictable regime where there is objective criteria and a defined timeline that determine who and when you can employ as foreign workers,” said Poorvi Chothani, managing partner at immigration law firm LawQuest. “In my view, this is much better than being at the mercy of a lottery and the whims and fancies of the immigration officers adjudicating the petitions.”

But admitting skilled talent through this route won’t be a bed of roses either, experts warn.

…the bad, and the uncertain

Already facing scrutiny for bagging low-wage entry-level jobs, the bulk of Indian visas may fail the merit threshold, or “privilege” threshold. “I would caution Indians (and Chinese, who are also backlog sufferers) from jumping to conclusions that this will help,” Hassan Ahmad, immigration lawyer, advocate, and a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, told Quartz. “If there’s one thing that this administration has made clear, it’s that they don’t want you here.”

Also, the fate of hundreds of thousands of Indians already in the queue for green cards, waiting for years due to the immense backlog, could be up in the air once again.

“It is entirely possible that the new system renders ineligible large numbers of people who are eligible under the current system,” said Leon Rodriguez, partner at the Washington, DC office of Seyfarth Shaw and former director of USCIS. “As an advocacy matter, I think it is critical that policymakers consider grandfathering of those already waiting for green cards.”

For now, though, it isn’t anything more than just that—a plan. House speaker Nancy Pelosi has described it as “dead on arrival” and senior congressional Republicans are yet to endorse it.

In the meantime, Indians have found other ways to come to the US.

“This includes the L-1 visa for transferring employees within a company and the EB-5 investor visa, which has skyrocketed in popularity in India in the past two years,” said Mark Davies, global president of Davies & Associates LLC. “We have even supported a number of Indians wanting to relocate to the US on an E2 (treaty investor) visa. Indians are not eligible for E2 visas, but we have helped them first become citizens of E2 eligible counties like Grenada in the West Indies.”

Others have ditched the American dream altogether and are looking north, finding a sea of opportunities in neighbouring country Canada. Recently, the UK, too, has started opening its doors wider for foreign immigrants.