On January 20th, the White House website hosted a press statement on the submission of the new U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to the Senate. The Bill, it claimed, “establishes a new system to responsibly manage and secure our border, keep our families and communities safe, and better manage migration across the Hemisphere."
For millions of hopefuls in the U.S. and far beyond its borders, with dreams of American citizenship bright in their eyes, President Joe Biden's move could not have come sooner, after his predecessor had wreaked havoc on the entire immigration policy.
Perhaps sensing the change in the attitude, an influx of South American migrants, spearheaded by children, is ready to flood across the Mexican border once again. This fresh human wave will only strengthen anti-migrant groups' hands as President Biden's well-intentioned bill undergoes public and legislature scrutiny.
PROMISES OF CHANGE
The White House says that the bill will “… restore humanity and American values to our immigration system […] provide hardworking people who enrich our communities every day and who have lived here for years, in some cases for decades, an opportunity to earn citizenship." These words will be music to the ears of hundreds of thousands of Indian tech workers in the U.S. condemned to wait forever till they got their green cards.
The bill provides a quicker path to citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants. It looks to clear the pathway for more foreign workers by removing the decades-long backlog of employment-based green card applications (capped at 140,000 per year under current law).
Domestic support is crucial for the bill after the wave of xenophobia swept the nation during the last four years. So far, labour groups are supporting this approach. Businesses also view the proposal to increase their pool of coders and tech workers due to their ever-growing need for skilled professionals. Of course, this would benefit Indians the most.
Any increase in immigration does impact the domestic job market, more so when the pandemic is battering the economy. Mr Biden will have to remove these fears by carefully calibrating the immigration numbers and allowing the public to understand the benefits that highly educated migrants bring to revitalise the economy. In his election manifesto, Mr Biden had spoken of a caveat to reduce the number of employment-based green cards at times of high unemployment.
In the past, efforts to expand the workforce through increasing H-1B visas drew fire from unions and immigration opponents, because companies prefer cheaper foreigners over local talent which must be paid approved rates.
While the Democrats have enough votes in Congress, they do not have the 60 votes needed to stop the Senate Republicans from using a filibuster to prevent a vote from taking place on the bill.
Anti-migrant feelings still run high. The states of Florida, Arizona, and Montana are suing Mr. Biden's Administration over the new directives to halt detentions of some immigrants who have served time in prison. They believe that releasing and not deporting them could lead to more crimes.
UNDOING THE DAMAGE
Mr. Trump made the U.S. immigration system a whole new beast through executive action and regulatory change. In total, he is said to have made 400 to 1,000 changes to immigration policy. The Trump presidency sought to restrict legal and illegal migration, which then set firmly into the party's official stance.
A debate raging over the last decade has been whether U.S. tech companies need to import workers as there are plenty of graduates in the U.S. A literature review by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while the academic STEM market is generally oversupplied, the government and private sectors face a shortage. There is a consistent demand for employees in software development and high-growth areas such as mobile application development, data science, and petroleum engineering.
THE INDIAN PERSPECTIVE
Indian professionals make up a massive number of H-1B recipients. Stories of Indians working abroad and waiting for decades for a green card are not new. The new proposal would allow those waiting for long to get permanent residency within a reasonable time. The plan would also exempt spouses and children of green-card holders from the annual quota.
Most often, however, it is not entirely the Indian companies that hire them. Over the years, companies like Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, and Wipro, have reduced dependence on H-1B. This shift began much before the visa programme was changed beyond recognition by the Trump administration.
While India does not have a special visa deal with the U.S., the E-2 visa (an individual can enter and work in the U.S. based on an investment they will be controlling) is beginning to emerge as a solid pathway for Indians.
A MORE HUMANE APPROACH?
Nearly 5,00,000 international students entered the U.S. every year before Mr. Trump’s tenure, and that number decreased due to his strict migration policies. Students are required to apply for an extension after no more than four years in the country. One of the most pressing issues Mr. Biden faces right now, is whether he should allow temporary migrants, such as students, easier access to visas. The proposed bill would allow more foreign STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) students and workers to enter by increasing the number of employment-based citizenships.
When it comes to refugee immigration policies, the water remains murky. Biden's Administration has not yet withdrawn the court cases that the Trump administration was pursuing to keep immigrants out of the country.
Facilities to house immigrants at the border, are meant to be just a stopover. Under the law, children should be moved to shelters run by the Health and Human Services Department.
While Mr. Biden is still choosing to take a warmer approach than Mr. Trump by allowing vulnerable children into the country, this approach is already at risk due to the realities of migration patterns worldwide, which always sees an influx when there is space for entry.