India’s IT trade body spent a record sum lobbying the US Congress before the H-1B crackdown

Money well spent?
Money well spent?
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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India’s information technology (IT) industry keeps a very close eye on Washington DC.

After all, the US accounts for some 60% of the industry’s total software exports, and any untoward shift in government policy, particularly with regards to immigration, can hurt.

So, over the years, apart from individual companies, the Indian IT sector’s trade body, the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), has spent a sizeable sum on lobbying (i.e. seeking influence with) the US Congress on immigration and visa-related issues.

In 2016, according to data sourced from the US Senate, NASSCOM shelled out $440,000, or about Rs2.84 crore—it’s highest ever spending on lobbying in the US (In 2013, it spent $10,000 less).

So far, though, this hasn’t quite yielded the results that the IT industry would’ve wanted under US president Donald Trump’s watch.

On March 03, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced the temporary suspension of premium processing of H-1B visas, which Indian IT companies heavily utilise to send engineers to the US. This option enabled firms to speedily deploy resources, especially for ongoing projects.

Then, at the end of March, the USCIS issued guidance that will make it increasingly difficult for Indian outsourcing firms to bring relatively inexpensive Indian computer programmers to work on projects in the US. The move will likely have some impact since an estimated 50% of all Indian H-1B applicants for computer programmer positions come on entry-level packages.

There may be more trouble ahead. Multiple immigration-related bills are in the US Congress at the moment, which, immigration lawyers reckon, could lead to legislation that could be bad news for Indian IT.

NASSCOM declined to respond to an emailed questionnaire from Quartz.

To be fair, lobbying the US Congress isn’t always easy, particularly when its about something as tricky as immigration.

“On an issue like immigration, almost every industry has something at stake, and thousands of organisations will be lobbying. It seems very unlikely that one organisation would move the needle on its own,” explained Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think-tank in Washington DC and author of The Business of America is Lobbying.

“But if there’s a specific narrow issue within the larger immigration debate the company cares about, like setting the number of IT visas from India, it could have some influence,” he added.

Also, NASSCOM isn’t among those with the deepest pockets for lobbying on Capitol Hill either. “The biggest spenders spend $10 million or $20 million a year on lobbying,” said Drutman. “Half-a-million is not nothing, but it does not put NASSCOM anywhere near the top.”

That said, the IT association has had some help from the Narendra Modi government. In February, before the H-1B crackdown began, prime minister Modi had asked a group of visiting US lawmakers to develop “a reflective, balanced, and far-sighted perspective on movement of skilled professionals.” Days later, India’s trade minister Nirmala Sitharaman told Reuters that the Modi government would engage with the Trump administration to emphasise how Indian companies have created jobs in the US.

Evidently, though, neither money nor diplomatic muscle seems to be working at the moment.