NEW DELHI: Indian engineers have for long viewed the US as the land of El Dorado with its promise of riches — professional and personal. But they are now a deeply worried lot as nationalist rhetoric turns shrill in Donald Trump’s America.
Riddled with insecurity about the status of their visas and unsure about continuation at American workplaces, scores of Indian techies are turning to social media platforms to express deep-seated angst.
In a bid to gauge their mood, ET spoke to several US-based engineers of Indian origin who declined to be identified fearing professional retribution, but expressed a multitude of fears about what the future might hold for them.
“I got married last year. How much do you think I’ll have to earn to live a comfortable life in Delhi?” asked a senior information technology project manager, who has lived in the US for seven years and works for a technology corporation on an H-1B visa.
His peers are asking similar questions as the Trump government makes plain its intention to tighten the H-1B visa programme. Armies of Indian coders have used this programme to work in the world’s largest market for IT services.
Industry estimates place the total number of Indian engineers on H-1B visas in the US at 300,000-350,000. This includes employees of Indian tech companies such as Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services and Wipro, as well as those employed by American multinationals like Accenture and IBM. American politicians, of all hues, have regularly taken umbrage at this model of outsourcing.
The Indian information technology services industry is now estimated to be worth $150 billion.
The lack of clarity on how exactly the Trump administration will tweak visa norms is fuelling apprehension among Indian techies. While some have put off key financial decisions, others say their job prospects have dimmed since the change of guard at the White House.
“I have put plans to buy a house on hold, because my visa is expiring next year. So, I don’t know how my green card application, which was supposed to begin in February, would get affected,” said a management graduate who earned his degree in the US and now lives in Texas.
A New York-based information management specialist who has been in the US since 2012 said he has experienced an immediate fallout of the Trump presidency. “I was looking for a job and got one a few weeks ago. But they stalled the appointment because I have an H-1B visa,” he said. “The problem is, we don’t yet know about Trump’s stand on legal immigration. But with him, you never know. So companies are being cautious.”
Uncertainty extends to Spouses
A foreign worker with an H-1B visa can stay in the US for a maximum of six years, with an initial validity of three years that can be extended by another three, according to legal advice site nolo.com.
It is not just the engineers who are worried. The uncertainty extends to their spouses too. The fate of the Obama administration’s decision in 2014 to allow spouses of H1-B visa holders to apply for work permits in the country also hangs in the balance.
“I have to apply for a work permit (EAD) under this provision, but now there is no clarity on how that will work. So we’re waiting and watching,” said a woman who worked as a business analyst in one of India’s top IT companies before relocating to San Francisco in 2014 after marriage. Her husband studied in the US, and now works in Silicon Valley in one of the world’s largest technology companies.
At present, the US has a cap of 65,000 visas for the general category and allows a further 20,000 people who have a US masters’ degree from an accredited institution to also apply. In a year, nearly 200,000 H-1B visa applications are approved, including visa renewals, extensions and other exempt categories.
Professionals whose visas are coming up for renewal are a worried lot too. On his first day in office, Trump promised to ask the US department of labor to investigate the work visa programmes.
“My visa is coming up for renewal in some time, and I am a little uncertain. But I won’t blame Trump, because he definitely needs to take some hard steps to avoid visa exploitation by companies,” said a senior developer who works for a financial services company in Utah.
Most of the senior professionals ET spoke to are of the view that the H-1B visa system, which was designed for “highly skilled workers”, has been misused by some technology companies.
“Indian work visa-sponsoring companies import fresh-off-the-boat Indian workers under long-term labour bonds to displace experienced Indian techies already present in the US on H-1B visas,” said Rajiv Dabhadkar, founder of the National Organisation for Software and Technology Professionals, which works for Indian workers overseas.
“It’s the smaller and relatively unknown outsourcing outfits that have been known to rampantly abuse the system,” said Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief executive officer at Greyhound Research.