By Rahul Tyagi
Priscilla and Jerry Hagebusch, of Newport, New Hampshire, have been family friends since the fall of 2003. We often share with them our frustration at the green card situation and they always listen with empathy and kindness.
I have been on the H-1B visa for more than 14 years after completing my MBA from a highly ranked business school in the U.S. My family and I have waited nine years for our green cards but there is still no end in sight.
Hundreds of thousands of skilled Indian professionals and their families are similarly stuck in an eternal green card queue. Decades ago Congress mandated a per country limit of 7% of the 140,000 or so employment based green cards issued each year. That puts an annual cap of roughly 10,000 green cards for people born in India. The actual demand is four to five times higher.
Recently, Congress passed HR 1044 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Its companion bill S. 386 is now with the Senate. This bill will eliminate the per country caps and award green cards on a first-come-first-serve basis. However, its passage is mired in the usual bickering about the impacts of high skilled immigration on the American job market.
Critics of the H-1B program and employment based green cards often argue that importing “cheap” foreign labor steals jobs and results in lower wages for American workers. The low wage argument isn’t without merit. Yes, having foreign workers in the American workforce will tend to depress wages, at least in some sectors. Throughout history, businesses have sought cheap labor and raw materials. It is no different now. Modern American corporations do not just hire foreign skilled workers. They also have extensive business interests in other countries, especially in India. Microsoft, Adobe, Google, Apple, Coke, Levi, Ford, pizza chains, Netflix, Disney and legions of other makers and providers of goods and services do hundreds of billions of dollars of business in India.
The 300 million strong Indian middle class is the fastest growing group of consumers in the world, making it one of the biggest marketplaces in the world. American companies that do business in India enrich their shareholders in America, who in turn spend those dollars in the American market and pay taxes to the U.S. government. Most Americans are either oblivious of or conveniently ignore the fact that American companies, American shareholders and American tax revenues are enriched by doing business abroad, often at the expense of local small businesses in a foreign country. They cry foul over lower wages here but know nothing about the large tracts of arable land ruined in India due to the depletion of the water table resulting from Coke and Pepsi bottling plants. I am not positing that trade is bad. On the contrary, exchange of goods, services, content, ideas and culture makes us all richer. At the local level however, the consequences can frequently be less than desirable. The price of global gain is sometimes local pain.
Sporadic instances of lower wages and job losses in the American economy as a result of high-skilled immigration are natural consequences of a globally networked economy. America should be ready to forfeit the fruits of global trade if it insists on protectionism for its workforce. Post the industrial revolution Western powers created captive marketplaces (and cheap sources of raw material) by colonizing countries. We live in a more egalitarian world. Today, trade means much more than just buying from and selling to a captive people. Trade also means movement of talent and skills across borders. This requires movement of people who unfortunately bring with them the baggage of families, careers, hopes, dreams and aspirations.
My understanding is that the H-1B visa was created with precisely this intent in mind. It is a dual intent visa which means that it allows its holder to dream the American dream. One does not need to demonstrate “strong and binding ties” to the home nation to obtain an H-1B visa. The promise of permanent residency and eventually, American citizenship is implicit in this visa. Very few if any, would seek to migrate to the U.S., give their best years to a foreign society, and leave. And although not all H-1B holders apply for green cards, the overwhelming majority do. An American green card and passport are just rewards for the risk, the uncertainty, the toil, and the cultural transformation that a migrant experiences. To live and work freely in the greatest nation in the history of mankind, is the only expectation most migrants have when they land here for the first time. For that reward they are willing work hard and wait many years.
But America is now reneging on that promise. Why did America admit tens of thousands of dual intent H-1B visa holders every year when there weren’t enough green cards for them? Because the industry needed them? Because Indian doctors were required in rural areas where no American would go?
Americans demand high wages, great benefits, fewer working hours, cheap goods and inexpensive vacations. The only way a society or a nation can have all of these is if people in other parts of the world produce goods for next to nothing. This is the reason manufacturing jobs left America. And this is the reason that knowledge-based jobs are going overseas as well. There are only two choices now – work for reasonable wages here or watch that job ship out to a foreign country. If Americans insist on high wages for jobs that someone somewhere else is willing to do for a lot less, that job will go abroad.
The situation of Indian professionals waiting for green cards today is similar to other examples of bonded labor in American history. For tax purposes, we are treated as permanent residents. Social security and Medicare are deducted from our paychecks at the regular rates. And yet, my college-age daughter cannot complete the required Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, because she does not have a social security number. We have no expectation of federal aid. But the FAFSA form enables a student to apply to other kinds of scholarships and financial aid, many of which are funded by the tax dollars we contribute to.
Sorry, if I sound entitled. “If it is so bad here, why don’t you go back to your country?” This is the refrain we hear sometimes. Sure, I’ll go back to my country. Just give me back the best years of my life and my youth. And don’t forget to pay me back the Social Security and medicare deductions that I will never get to use. America invited me to work here on an H-1B visa and an implicit promise of a green card. I would never have come here if I knew that after 16 years, the officer at border control would still be asking me: “What brings you to the U.S.?”
We are still hopeful though. There is no option but to hope. That is why we have our eyes peeled for the outcome of S. 386.
Rahul Tyagi is an air cargo Pricing and Revenue Management expert with prior experience of rail transportation. He currently holds a managerial position with a Fortune 100 company and lives in Germantown, Tennessee.
This piece is based on an email exchange with Pris which began with Tyagi requesting support for S. 386.