Thousands of Indian students in US lose visa power

Long before I settled in America in 1996, I’d heard from friends that India was home to thousands of well-educated, free-thinking, restless students eager to leave the dusty and oppressive journey of life in a family or village. Yet I had never seen it myself.

Until last September, when I packed my bags for a trip to northern New Jersey, where there were thousands of young Indians already having settled in working-class places like Somerset County, and the not-so-struggling borough of Franklin Lakes, where I had grown up. There were hundreds more scattered across Pennsylvania.

Each one of them had a visa.

There were Indian-Americans working for one of the biggest law firms in New York and in finance. There were one or two Indian-Americans at Harvard. There were at least three young Indians in Boston who took at least two jobs each, from opening a couple of doors to moonlighting as dishwashers, to block the bill on time.

I’d never had more than a passing acquaintance with the thousands of students from India who had gained US visas in the years before, when immigration laws were simpler. But now, I could see for myself the end of an age of open-borders optimism about the future.

In September, the US decided to impose quotas on visas for skilled workers from India and other countries. Predictably, the news hurt, and Indian corporate schools decided to lower their students’ dreams. Even those students who thought they’d already emigrated didn’t seem sure what to do next.

The US had even started refusing visas to those students who had worked hard to acquire the visas in the first place. The reasons given — that the State Department deemed the work they’d done on their visas to be “exotic” or “high-skill” — were absurd, since even the most basic computer programming would have met their professional qualifications. The US’s cutoff to India was very little.

But nobody seemed to care. The visa cancellation was a political statement about America’s need to regain its fiscal balance. And many Indians found it their only answer. Whether they went for a college degree or a job, they were abandoning hope for a better future in India.

Indeed, in the New Jersey community that I visited, I hardly heard a peep of resentment against the Indians who had crossed the Atlantic. Instead, most were perplexed and angry about how they’d ended up with the burden of being cut off from the opportunities of America.

The anger was hardly reserved for the Indians, either. Schools and restaurants openly complained that the exodus of workers had dented their local economy. Of course, nobody knows just how much their work has been missed. But it seems obvious that as places like Franklin Lakes now had to compete for low-skilled jobs, rising wages, and a new economy, Indian-Americans here would only have less power than before.

Among the Indian professionals I spoke to, every one seemed to be convinced that they’d have left in the first place even if the quota hadn’t been reduced.

“Even if all this had happened, I would have quit my job at Citibank, which I love,” said Paramit Bakshi, a computer-specialist who had studied in India. “Because I believe that I could have had more security in America than I could have in India.”

Some work, he admitted, was less safe in the United States, which was showing greater concern about offshoring. That’s not a problem if the scale of job-shifting by Asian and developing-world countries is very small.

But today, millions of jobs are in danger of being moved overseas — because, for a variety of reasons, the US now feels it can no longer bring itself to compete on the basis of human capital. The last couple of decades have seen a boom in intellectual innovation and creativity — including tech talent — that can’t be disputed. But a growing number of jobs will be done by robots and computers, and by immigrants, soon enough.

Indian professionals now realise they can’t count on the world for their protection. And now they’re worried that India will be collateral damage, much as the millions of Vietnam and Bangladeshis who stayed on to work after the war lost jobs they never expected.

In the US, where immigration used to be seen as a route out of poverty, these Indians are waking up to a reality that had always gone far beyond the immigrants of their time. No longer. The days of citizenship as a gateway to opportunity for Americans and foreigners alike are coming to an end.

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