The US House of Representatives has passed a bill to help Indian technology professionals get their permanent residentship sooner by cutting short the decade-long wait they now endure, but it is facing an unexpected roadblock in the Senate.
The bill sponsored by 311 Representatives from both parties was adopted on Wednesday and it will remove the limits on the number of permanent residencies or green cards that can be given in a year to citizens of each country in a bid to remove the huge backlog faced by highly qualified applicants from mainly India and China.
If it becomes a law, it will help many of the 300,000 Indian H1-B temporary work visa holders now in the US and in various stages of the green card process.
Under the current system, the maximum number of green cards that can be granted to people from any country, whether it is as large as India and China or as small as Maldives and Luxembourg, is 7 per cent of the total, which is about 26,000 annually.
This quota affects Indian technology professionals and other highly qualified people leading to a wait of 10 years during which those already here on temporary H1-B work visas face uncertainty about their and their families’ future prospects.
The bill, officially known as Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, seeks to eliminate the cap and allow up to 85 per cent of the green cards to be given to Indians and Chinese in the first two years and 90 per cent in the third year in order to clear the backlog.
After that, the backlogs are likely to build up unless there is a comprehensive immigration reform.
It received the votes of 224 Democrats and 140 Republicans.
The bill has been opposed by both the extreme left and the right. Two important leftist members, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, were among the eight Democrats who voted against it. On the Republican side, 57 voted against it.
If a similar bill introduced by Indian-American Democrat Senator Kamala Harris and Republican Senator Mike Lee is adopted after overcoming last minute obstacles, it is likely to get President Donald Trump’s approval as it meshes in with his immigration reform proposal to do away with country quotas and give priority to highly qualified immigrants.
The legislation would come at a time when India has complained about the increased scrutiny and higher rates of denial of H1-B applications for Indian. And this has become a point of contention between the two countries. It is also possible that Trump may hold it up as negotiating ploy in the trade dispute.
Democrat Representative Zoe Lofgren, who was the main mover behind the legislation, said American industries needed it to remain competitive as they were finding it “increasingly difficult when workers from high-population countries must compete for the same limited number of visas as workers from low population countries”.
Republican Representative John Curtis, put it more succinctly saying, the bill “will create a first-come, first-serve system providing certainty to workers and families and enabling US companies to flourish and compete in a global economy as they hire the brightest people to create products, services, and jobs – regardless of where they were born”.
It was welcomed by technology companies, many of which lobbied for it.
Amazon tweeted: “Thank you to @RepZoeLofgren and the 311 House cosponsors for supporting the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act.”
But it has run into problems in the Senate. Senator Rand Paul had held up the Senate version from coming to vote demanding that it include a quota for nurses as they may be swamped by technology professionals.
A medical doctor, Paul is nominally a Republican but ideologically a libertarian who defies party lines. It was a sudden turn around for him because in previous years he had even co-sponsored similar versions of the bill, which failed to make headway.
Although for a different reason, he finds himself on the same side as some Democrats who oppose it because it does not increase the yearly total number of green cards, which is around a million now, and others including hardline right-wingers who say the immigrating technology professionals will undercut American workers and also because Indian and Chinese people will overwhelm the immigration system.
Lee had earlier overcome the objections of another Republican Senator Charles Grassley by agreeing to insert provisions for better enforcement of H1-B regulations. This is not in the House bill and a compromise would have to be worked out it passes the Senate before going to Trump for his signature.