As H1B workers raise social media game, deep fissures surface among power brokers

Camp fights are brewing and knives are out as Indian-led advocacy for high skilled workers-centered policy in the United States reaches a crucial crossroads this week coinciding with a must-pass funding bill in the US Congress.

Nikhila Natarajan March 14, 2018 22:14:45 IST
As H1B workers raise social media game, deep fissures surface among power brokers

You’ve seen this movie before.

Knives are out as Indian-led advocacy for a high skilled worker-friendly visa policy in the United States reaches a crucial juncture this week coinciding with a must-pass funding bill in the US Congress.

Sensing they are in with a chance to make a dent in an undeniably tough, gridlocked political landscape, multiple Indian expat groups are laying claim to their pound of flesh in the policy sweepstakes.

Immigration Voice, a “non profit” advocacy group that formed "12 years ago" has put out a strongly worded note asking that members don’t support groups with partisan names or objectives or “seek to advance any legislation other than H.R.392.”

Here’s how the note opens:
"As many of you might know, a partisan organization is planning some events in the next few months. Many Immigration Voice members have seen material that is falsely suggesting that Immigration Voice is part of such events, and they have reached out to us asking for clarification whether Immigration Voice supports such events. We strongly urge our members not to affiliate, attend, or otherwise support events or meetings facilitated by groups that either have partisan names or partisan objectives, or, seek to advance any legislation other than H.R.392."

We’ll come to the HR 392 in a moment. But before that, what does “partisan” allude to?

As H1B workers raise social media game deep fissures surface among power brokers

Social media has become a force multiplier for H1B workers hard done by tough as nails public policy / REUTERS

No names are mentioned here but off the record, Immigration Voice (IV) sources confirm that their primary beef is with the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) led by Shalabh Kumar and Co. In parallel, there are enough people bristling about Immigration Voice's methods too. "What have they done for us in 11 years? It's because we saw no results that we are going to Washington DC on our own dime and trying to meet every lawmaker we can," says an ex-IV member who is clearly disgruntled.

All you need to know about the HR 392

We spoke with Vikram Desai of Immigration Voice. He says his organization understands more about where "the rubber meets the road" in real world policy making. "It's great that so many people are going to Washington D.C and meeting with Senators but that's not enough." Desai's view is that the Indian effort will be "diluted" and put at risk if multiple groups approach lawmakers with a wide lexicon that includes words like legal dreamers and H1B "which are toxic" when all they should be focusing on is a single bill - the HR 392.

The H1B community familiar with the developments say the real issue is about the respective size of treasure chests on both sides via "donations".

"If all they care about is one bill and they know how to get it done, then why are they always collecting money from us", asks Vasudha, a Florida resident familiar with advocacy shops which are seeing a burst of activity in the second year of Trump.

Meanwhile, Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) has confirmed that they are planning a “big rally” at the National Mall in Washington DC. Speaking with Firstpost, Krishna Bansal of the RHC said they are hoping to pull in “20,000 people to highlight immigration issues that our community is facing especially legal dreamers and Green Card backlog”.

"HR 392 by itself will not resolve anything. We have met hundreds of lawmakers in the last few months and built a calculator. Even if it goes through as it is, there will be a huge Green Card backlog. People who go and apply today - they’ll have a 30 year wait. So it will have to be HR 392 plus. Lawmakers have agreed to tag on all the conditions we are looking for”, said Bansal.

That's easily said. Folks on the GC backlog fully understand this and discount it instantly. "It's getting ugly...fighting among ourselves! Such a shame," says Ranjit, an H1B worker from Seattle.

Asked specifically about the pushback from Immigration Voice, Bansal puts it down to “you see, this is the problem with our community” and plays up the “unique relationship” that the RHC has with “this (Trump) administration”.

Fence sitters who are affiliated to neither organisation are finding merit in that one sentence alone - "unique relationship" which is a fancy term for schmoozing in the right circles.

Dekho (look), whether you like it or not, Shalabh (Kumar) got Trump to come to his event, he has the networking capability, so it is possible that might work for us. We don’t know what might happen but that’s how he is and that is how he operates. If it works out for our community, no harm done even if it’s done in not so cool English,” says an H1B worker in Austin, Texas who is intensely clued in to every twist in this story for the last 10 years. She requested not to be named because of the “hate speech” that is circulating on social groups linked to the H1B issue.

If you’ve read this far into this story, these pictures from Shalabh Kumar's Twitter handle explain the quote above.

Shalabh Kumar’s claim to fame in the US is a remarkable moment from 2016, just before the US election’s final bend and just after the Access Hollywood tape where Trump was heard speaking of sexual assault seemed to have ripped the bottom out of the Trump campaign.

Trump, looking visibly rattled and ashen that day, took the stage and said what no other Presidential candidate has said of India before an election - “I love Hindu, If I become President, US and India will be best friends”.

At the time, Shalabh Kumar and Immigration Voice’s chief shared the stage. Now, IV is going for the jugular. What we’re hearing is that one side or more reneged on some pre-conditions of that high power photo op.

All this is background.

What’s going on now has some more dominos to factor in.

In the last few months alone, Indian high skilled workers affiliated neither to Immigration Voice nor explicitly to RHC have made inroads into Washington DC in a bid to be heard above the din of DACA recipients. To their credit, they also made it to the headlines of BBC, CNN and NBC news sites, mostly without handholding from the established names in the game.

It’s a no-brainer that once an issue gains traction, advocacy groups blossom all around and both young and old ones want a finger in the pie. Ditto here. Simplified down to its bare bones, the quick and dirty solution to much of the Indian worker angst would be when the Green Card backlog is cut drastically because that fixes many issues in one go - H4 dependents can work because their employment authorisation does not become their sole fallback, children of H1B workers don’t need to fret about aging out ( after age 21) and so on.

But, with the H1B visa getting skewered the way it is since Trump’s ascent to power, many on the policy circuit are avoiding the “H-word” when they meet with Senators. Instead, the use of other acronyms and hashtags have surged - DALCA (Deferred Action for Legal Childhood Arrivals), legal dreamers, high skilled immigration, #SaveH4EAD, #EndGCbacklog and so on.

Given the nature of social media, the H1B ecosystem kicks in basis each H1B worker’s unique situation - some are posting video tweets stuffed to the limit with hashtags where H4 dependent children speak of GC backlogs, others meet Senators and / or their office staff and post those pictures, a lot of this can either be seen as small disparate wins for the community or a rite of passage with a big black hole at the end.

With an average 15 year Green Card backlog, the H4 EAD under threat and the Omnibus bill still not a thing, why should it matter which Indian cohort is backing which bill?

Because if this thing works out and HR 392 or the I-Squared bill make the cut, the fruits will be uniformly distributed among the large and growing Indian community the same way the H4 EAD decision helped H1B workers' spouses. "Those with an ask (namely H4 EAD and Green Cards) are the golden goose (sic)." Many organizations are unleashing massive funding drives. Some are leading members into recurring deposit accounts and others are raking it in based on political connections. Those with ambitions of being policy mavens would want to be seen as lead thinkers; some who are playing for political chops are possibly surprised at how the people they thought were the H1B bourgeoisie have organised well enough to knock at doors in Washington DC and get news footage too. Closer to the finish line, a lot of folks want to 'own' the results.

So, there's a lot going on. And then some.

The wild cards here are the so-called "H1B consultancies" which hold the H1B paperwork of many Indians and make a cut from their earnings every month because of the brutal asymmetry of the employer-employee relationship in a foreign land. Would they want any of these bills that promise faster Green Cards to make it through Congress? Think about it. The longer the leash on an H1B worker, the tighter you can pull. That's another story - the abuse of the H1B worker in America by the enemy within. For those who want to dig deeper on this, here's a blog that Arnab, a Firstpost reader from Redmond sent us on the dark side of contractual hiring.

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