Daniel Tichenor is his book Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America writes “Immigration is perhaps the most enduring and elemental leitmotif of America”. He talks about the political battles that took place between the proponents and opponents of Immigration and how that impacted the transformative policy regimes which were built. Politics in the 19th century was the central driver of the expansionist policies allowing European admission in America while imposing draconian restrictions on the Chinese and including racist quotas in the immigration laws. However, in the post-World War II years, the American global leadership and interest groups politics led to an expansion in immigration opportunities and the abolition of draconian clauses from the policies. In the 1990s, the political mobilization of recent immigrants took place due to the surge of ‘restrictionist fervour’. The American immigration policies have been oscillating from one end to the other throughout history, which has impacted not only the home-countries of migrants but also the economy of the United States.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
With the adoption of this Act, all racial restrictions codified in the US immigration and naturalization statutes were abolished but the quota system for nationalities and regions was retained. The Act created a system of preference to determine which ethnic groups were desirable immigrants and emphasized the importance of labour qualifications while placing caps on the number of immigrants that were allowed from a country. The Act was amended in 1965 to include the provision of ‘no discrimination based on race, sex, nationality, place of birth or residence while issuing visas.’ In 2017, President Trump imposed a blanket restriction on entry into the United States of people from several nations, under the authority of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was challenged in court. However, on June 26, 2018, the US Supreme Court upheld the President’s authority to implement restriction in the case of Trump v. Hawaii.
Indians migrating to the States
Indians began migrating to the United States in greater numbers after the Nationality and Immigration Act, 1965 was passed. The talk of multiculturalism would not have found resonance in the 20th century if the legislation had not been passed nor would there have been a transformation in the demographic make-up of the States. The implementation of privatization & liberalization, along with the emergence of IT industries in Indian cities encouraged the outflow of migrants to the USA from the states of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. There has also been a surge in the students migrating to the States to pursue higher education over the years. Indian-Americans have become one of the richest ethnicities in America with an average household income of $121,891. Thomas Friedman in his book The World is Flat, writes that the best and brightest elements in India move to the States in search of better financial opportunities. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine in their report said that immigrant workers have made a significant contribution to the GDP growth of the States and that the Indian immigrants are the most entrepreneurial of any group, including natives. More than 20% of the engineers working for Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and other high-tech companies are from India and many others have risen to senior managerial positions.
Immigration under President Trump and its impact on India
President Trump ordered a freeze on the H-1B visas in late June this year, which provoked dismay and disbelief among Indians, who account for nearly three-quarter of the Visa applications under the program for skilled workers. Trump said that this move would protect the US workers, who are suffering job losses resulting from the pandemic. This order was an expansion of the executive order of April 22nd 2020, which denied green cards to applicants in several immigrant visa categories. Critics argue that the pandemic is being used as an opportunity by Trump to implement sweeping changes to the immigration system—before the November elections—and impose the restrictions that Trump’s advisor Stephen Miller and other hard-liners have been advocating for many years.
The burden of the suspension of visas will fall on the US technology firms that rely on the skilled workers coming from India as part of the H-1B visa Programme. The move was publicly condemned by famous entrepreneurs such as Thomas Donohue, Sundar Pichai, and Elon Musk, who reiterated that immigration is good for US economic prosperity. It has been argued that the local population lacks the skills to replace the Indian and Chinese immigrants that have been working efficiently in the US companies so far.
Ironically, restrictions on skilled immigration may result in more offshoring of jobs to countries such as India, Canada and China, claims a paper by Wharton School’s Britta Glennon. The study suggests that there would be an increase in foreign affiliate employment in India and China as they accounted for the most H-1B petition filings in 2017. As a result of the backlash that the government received after the ban, the State Department said that “visas would be issued to those employees who wish to resume ongoing employment. The exemptions are going to be made under the category of national interest because forcing employers to find substitutes for the immigrant employees would create financial hardships.” The announcement of the relaxations will benefit thousands of Indians who were already employed in different sectors in the US. The Indian IT companies, which rely on bilateral trade and movement of highly technical and skilled workers to the USA, would have been adversely impacted had the relaxations not been announced.
Trump has not always toed a hard-Republican line on immigration but has been influenced by his chief electoral strategist Steve Bannon’s views on immigration. Bannon has been critical of Indians and other Asian nationals working in different sectors of the economy by stating that “A country is more than an economy, we are a civic society.” Trump had initially shown his support for Indian immigration to the US since it benefits the economy; however, the influence of his advisors has made him implement policies and adopt a stance, which he had not advocated before becoming the President. India and the USA have cemented ties with each other through a Strategic Partnership and the personal chemistry between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump has so far worked for the betterment of Indian immigrants. Will immigration policies be made subservient to the larger electoral calculus of the White House in an election year or is the ostensibly rightward shift likely to only be transient?
Amisha Singh is a second-year student at Ashoka University, currently pursuing her major in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.