Lack of Movement on Immigration Reform Helps Indian IT Industry

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By Frank Islam | November 12, 2013 3:36 PM EST

The Indian information technology industry, steadfastly opposed to an immigration reform bill passed by the US Senate this past June, maybe finally getting its wish. It appears increasingly unlikely that the House of Representatives will vote on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, before the end of the year.

The bill-known as the "Gang of Eight bill," referring to a bipartisan group of senators that drafted the bill-proposes to provide pathways to citizenship to more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the United States.

But it also contains several punitive measures against the Indian IT services industry, even as it raises the annual H-1B visa cap from 65,000 to roughly 180,000. The bill would require IT companies that are dependent on H-1B and L1 visas to pay higher fees for their visas, discouraging the hiring of highly skilled employees from countries like India.

Arguing that the bill would make Indian IT firms less competitive in the US market, the Indian industry and the Government of India have been campaigning against it, both privately and publicly. During his visit to Washington to attend the IMF-World Bank annual meeting, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram reportedly raised India's concerns on the visa issues with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

So far, the Indian industry has found little to no support among some of its traditional allies on Capitol Hill or in Silicon Valley. (The US tech industry has been one of the most vocal supporters of the Gang of Eight bill.) On the other hand, it was counting on the Tea Party-backed congressmen-who are opposed to "pathway to citizenship" undocumented immigrants-to prevent the law from enacted in its current form. 

Now it seems that, in the wake of the protracted budget battle over Obamacare and the subsequent shutdown of the US government last month, prospects of the immigration reform bill becoming law before members go home for Christmas look increasingly bleak.

Members of Congress are likely to be in Washington for fewer than 18 days for legislative activities, the calendar posted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor on the House website shows. It would be impossible to push through such a monumental legislation in such a short time frame.

This was confirmed by influential House Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, who told The Washington Post last week that the likelihood of comprehensive immigration reform passing by the end of 2013 is essentially "nil." He said, "Congress [has] very few days available on the floor in the House, so I don't think we're going to be able to do it this year."

The Florida Republican, a staunch supporter of immigration reform, also spoke about a fresh set of problems that awaits the bill once 2014 dawns: losing political ground to the Republican Party primaries that will likely dominate much of the political landscape in 2014.

If comprehensive immigration reform is not passed by about February of next year, he said, it will be "dead for the foreseeable future." "If we can't get it done by early next year, then it's clearly dead," said Rep. Diaz-Balart. "It flatlines."

The congressman's comments come just a week after President Barack Obama confidently stated at the annual SelectUSA Investment Summit that the US has "got to fix [its] broken immigration system [and] make sure we get it done this year."

What poured cold water on the plan of immigration reform supporters is the federal shutdown, which sucked all the oxygen in Washington and completely took the immigration issue off the table for weeks.

Though the bill had relatively smooth sailing in the Senate, where Democrats call the shots, it was expected to have a bumpy ride in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But given the bipartisan support the reform advocates were able to mobilize, it was widely expected that the law would be in place by the end of the year.

But the shutdown meant it has become a race against calendar for the reform advocates.

For those looking for comprehensive immigration reform to pass and get implemented sooner rather than later, there is still a silver lining. A recently commissioned poll by "GOP-friendly groups" shows that voters are more favorable towards electing politicians who support immigration reform. The findings indicate that 52 percent of the survey group would elect someone who favors reform, while only 18 percent said they'd be less inclined to vote for some in favor of immigration reform.

The big number to take away from the poll, however, is 71. That's the percentage of those surveyed nationwide who would support an immigration bill that, among other things, would include provisions for "an expanded visa program for high-skilled workers."

The poll focused on political battleground states - including highly competitive states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Florida, among others - to gauge those citizens' reactions to immigration legislation. In Virginia - a hub for IT workers, particularly Indian ones - 51 percent of those surveyed said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who opposed immigration reform, as opposed to only 17 percent who said they'd support such a candidate.

But from an H-1B and L-1 visa standpoint, the lack of movement on immigration reform means that Indian IT companies can breathe a temporary sigh of relief.

(The writer is an author and businessmen based in Washington, DC. His website is www.frankislam.com)

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