H1B visa norms: Indians in the US are on thin ice, but aren't panicking yet

When actor and Quantico star Priyanka Chopra, appearing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert said, "I'm here on a visa so I've got to watch what I say" she gave voice to what a lot of Indians in the US are feeling at the moment.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Even though a federal judge in Seattle stayed the 27 January executive order that barred the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries and none of the orders, so far, mention Indians specifically, US president Donald Trump’s executive orders are making Indians quite nervous.

Although my Facebook feed was full of anti-Trump sentiments from Indians in the United States both during and after the elections, requests for interviews were met with little enthusiasm. And even though I assured friends that I wouldn’t quote them but would simply like to hear their opinion, many declined to comment. Thankfully, friends of friends and those with green cards spoke up.

Luv Sharma, 34, who has been in Seattle for eight years, took part in the protest against the travel ban. “Indians aren’t mentioned in the executive order so we’re okay for now but these policies are xenophobic and against basic human decency. I’ve been part of the protests right from the beginning — protesting a right-wing proto-fascist was a no-brainer,” he says. But Luv works for a left-leaning educational institute and has a green card. Other Indians in the US have had to face flak for voicing their opinions.

Niraj Lodaya, 26, works for a medical devices start-up in Silicon Valley. Lodaya says an innocuous comment from him on Facebook with regard to Donald Trump elicited extreme reactions from both American and Indian friends. “I decided to delete the comment even though it was only based on facts. But everyone on my page felt it wasn’t my place to make that comment. Becoming a part of the protest is out of the question as this is my last shot to get an H1B visa."

"But honestly, I’m okay if it doesn’t work out. I’ve checked out some co-working spaces in Mumbai and they look great. Start-ups there are doing some cutting edge work and I could apply some of what I’ve learnt here,” he says. Even though Niraj has a family and a large support system in the US, he says his friends and he have started seriously considering moving back to India. “We’re not sure what to make of what’s happening. Those of us who wanted to go back anyway are thinking sooner better than later,” he says with a smile.

The Indian community isn’t rallying together yet. A few feel it’s too early to start imagining the worst. The expectation is that it will become difficult to get an H1B visa (for workers in specialty occupations) if priority is given to higher paid individuals or if the total quota is reduced. The current legislation caps the number of H1B visas given annually at 85,000.

"I think the American economy needs individuals like me. Why would they give me a scholarship and access to a world-class education if they didn’t want me to contribute?” asks Ashwin Jeyakrishnan who graduated from a top university last year. Ashwin is hoping that the 24 month STEM OPT (Optional Practical Training) extension stays.

Students who graduate from American universities get a one year OPT period during which they can work on a student visa. During the Obama administration, this period was extended by 24 months for those who studied science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). “The number of American students going to college is reducing every year. If you took a look at my graduating class, the majority of students studying maths and engineering are Asian. The new administration is likely to reduce the OPT period and that’s scaring a few people but I’m not worried. And while I may not like what’s going on, I don’t have a say in the matter. He’s really not my president. This is for the American people to sort out,” says Ashwin.

Immigrating to the US has been easier for engineering and IT professionals. Those in journalism or the arts have had to work harder to get the same benefits. Pavni Mittal, a journalist with Al Jazeera who was working in New York during the US elections says she is shocked at how things have unfolded.  “As someone who covered Trump on election night, I saw the dismay and gloom that set in after he won. Trump's policies are divisive. There are no two questions about him being racist and misogynist but the most painful bit is that this did not deter his supporters. Everyone is nervous about his policies, especially immigration. But there's a difference between people like me who studied here and many Indians sent here for work. From what I understand, Trump has shown a preference to help the former."

Pavni, a former CNBC TV-18 anchor, graduated from Columbia University last year with an MA in Politics and Global Affairs. While she is confident that a global organization like Al Jazeera appreciates the diversity she brings to the table, she is on her OPT and is hoping that things change for the better.

Firms like Apple, Google, Amazon and Uber have drafted a letter asking the president to reconsider his travel ban. Some companies are even considering legal action. Others are patiently answering questions on immigration and emphasising how much they value diversity. Universities with foreign students have been holding information sessions to separate rumour from fact. But these efforts may not mean much if the administration has its way.

“Considering he's acting on all the claims that people thought are unthinkable and undoable, one fears if he can do something so radical overnight, what's stopping him from repeating that with Indians?” asks 30-year-old Shruti Kolhli who moved to New York last year. “I’ve got some embarrassed, almost apologetic explanations from friends about how this is absolutely un-American and how they're aghast at what's happening."

But the United States has had a long history of violence, slavery and nativism — some critics would say that what’s happening in the US is, in fact, quite American. Indians who are there without a green card or citizenship are on thin ice, so while it’s only natural that they’re quieter than usual they’re not panicking just yet.

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Updated Date: Feb 09, 2017 15:14:53 IST

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