Apart from the economy, immigration is emerging a major US elections issue.
Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, may have emerged as the frontrunner in the Republican pack of hopefuls, but the game has hardly begun and the political circus leading to the November 2012 showdown will put on its first act in January at Iowa, which will then be followed in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and so on.
To those of us in India, the name of the present Republican frontrunner may not ring a bell, for he may have hardly said anything substantial on United States-India relations in his years as a politician in Washington. For that matter, apart from an occasional anti-China statement or the more recent ramblings on the Arab Spring, Gingrich is not really known for his positions on foreign policy.
But there is one area in which the frontrunner, the Grand Old Party and the Democrats are going to be weighed heavily — the issue of Immigration, an area that is of tremendous importance and concern to India, people of Indian origin in the United States and the common person in India who is aspiring to come to the United States on a work or work-related visa.
Both Republicans and Democrats have been talking on comprehensive immigration reform, but neither of them has come to terms with the issue.
In the late 1970s, President Ronald Reagan gave amnesty to approximately three million persons living in the United States; today, that number is anywhere between ten and twelve million persons, or perhaps more, depending on whom one talks to. Although a substantial part of the illegals come from the Hispanic community, the fastest growth of the illegal community in America comes from India. The estimate is anywhere between 270,000 (official) to 400,000, or a jump of 125 per cent since 2000.
It is not as if people from India are coming to the United States illegally by walking or slipping across the US-Mexico border. The illegals of Indian origin have, for the most part, to do with those who came to the United States legally on a visa, but stayed on after the expiry of their status.
So, a comprehensive immigration reform benefits this huge group of people, and hence is a source of interest and concern to India and Indians.
Comprehensive immigration reform also have to do with addressing the areas of concern on the H1B and the L intra company transfer visa with several American lawmakers expressing grave concern on the so-called abuses taking place. In fact, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have called for tightening up the B1 Business visa, alleging that Indian companies are circumventing the rules.
Recently, the House of Representatives passed in an overwhelming 389-to-15 bi-partisan fashion, H.R.3012, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act that, among other things, kept the numeric limits on high-skilled employment visas and Green Cards, but removed the per-country limitations. This meant that people from India, who account for a large number of applications on high-skills-related green cards, stood to benefit, as the processing time stood to be substantially reduced.
“Per country limits make no sense in the context of employment-based visas. Companies view all highly skilled immigrants similarly, regardless of where they are from — be it India or Brazil,” remarked Republican Jason Chaffetz, the sponsor of the Bill.
The action was welcomed in the House of Representatives, but the euphoria was short-lived as Senator Charles ‘Chuck' Grassley, the Republican from Iowa and a strident critique of the current H1B, L and B1 visa procedures and processes put a “hold” on the legislation as it came to the United States Senate.
“…I am concerned that it does nothing to better protect Americans at home, who seek high-skilled jobs during this time of record high unemployment,” Senator Grassley said.
It is believed that the Senator is holding a number of things in an amendment that he is planning to the Senate version of the Bill, that would include tighter enforcement provisions relating to the H1B and L1 visa programmes.
A Senator or a nominee of the President placing on “hold” a piece of legislation is pretty serious business. The Senate Majority Leader may choose to ignore the “hold” and move it for action, which then faces the prospect of a filibuster by Senator Grassley; or the Iowan Republican can withdraw the hold on his own.
But in the present instance, H.R.3012 cannot even reach the Senate Judiciary Committee unless the hold is removed. Further, there is no guarantee that the Senate version will be like the House version, hence forcing the Bill to the conference stage. The writing on the wall is very clear: the 112th Congress has done precious little on the immigration reform front; and what little has been attempted and achieved has been held up on political grounds. With the two parties wrangling over the economy, the larger question is if they will take up the thorny issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Unlikely, is perhaps the best answer at this time.
(The author is Head, School of Media Studies, Faculty of Science and Humanities, SRM University, Chennai.)
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