In the last decade, India has gone from a country with which the United States had an uneasy, prickly relationship, to one of being its most important strategic and economic partners. A significant reason for this change is their shared perception of China as an enormous threat and competitor. Consequently, the relationship has focused much attention on countering that threat through cooperation via the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) on issues such as health and disaster preparedness, mutual defense agreements, and emerging technologies. Yet one of the most important tools available to the United States to counter China through this partnership is in jeopardy: U.S. immigration policy vis-à-vis Indian citizens.
The history of Indian immigration to the United States dates back to the nineteenth century. Up until World War II, Indian immigrants were mostly low-skilled migrant workers. This pattern changed by the mid-twentieth century, when Indians flocked to the United States to study or work white-collar jobs. In India, this phenomenon was often dubbed the “brain drain,” as India’s best and brightest left to settle in the United States. Today, Indians constitute the second-largest immigrant group in the United States after Mexicans, and the highest-earning ethnic group in the country. But decades of legal and skilled Indian immigration have run into huge structural and bureaucratic problems, jeopardizing U.S. needs in higher education and research, particularly in the science and technology sectors.
Immigration and Migration
Since 1965, when Congress abolished national-origin quotas that limited immigration to primarily European nations, Indians have immigrated to the United States through three main pathways. The first is through temporary work visas such as H-1Bs, which are employer-sponsored and issued to highly skilled workers. Currently, Indian nationals receive the majority of those visas. The second is through temporary student visas that bring Indian students to study at U.S. universities for undergraduate or graduate degrees. In 2021-22, for example, students from India made up the second-largest coterie (199,182) of international students, with the largest coterie (290,086) coming from China. The third is through converting those temporary visas into green cards, allowing their recipients to stay in the country and possibly pursue a path to U.S. citizenship.
All three routes of legal Indian immigration have important implications for the United States’ strategic competition with China. For years, the United States has relied on skilled immigrants to maintain a competitive advantage in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This reliance has become more acute since the mid-2000s, as China has been consistently graduating more STEM PhDs than the United States. Even more worrying, a recent report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy found that since 2010 the United States has been losing its competitive edge in basic science research to China. This loss of competitiveness is partly due to immigration issues. The United States, which traditionally “benefited from a steady stream of talented young scientists” emigrating to the country, is seeing this supply dry up thanks to uncertainty about visas for foreign students and visiting scholars. Information technology (IT) workers from India have also been the backbone of Silicon Valley, with many companies sponsoring those workers for H-1B visas and green cards. Finally, international students at U.S. universities not only boost science research (they make up 74 percent of electrical engineering students and 72 percent of computer and information science students), they also bring in billions of dollars in tuition, helping to defray costs for American students. Chinese students are still the largest group of international students in the United States, but their numbers have drastically declined since the pandemic as the United States issues fewer visas due to worries about espionage and Chinese government influence. Universities have therefore been hoping for Indian students, the second-largest contingent of international students, to make up the shortfall.
The issue is that the legal pathways of immigration for Indians have run into a myriad of severe problems. To begin with, the wait times to get an interview for a visa, whether for studies or work, are absurdly long. Applicants at the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai, for example, can wait up to 351 calendar days for an H-1B visa interview. In Chennai, students can wait almost a month for a visa interview. And of course, since these wait times are just for interviews, they include neither the subsequent processing time for the visa to be issued, nor a guarantee that it will, in fact, be issued.
The H-1B visa program itself has also become severely restricted. The numerical limit is so low—only 85,000 new H-1B petitions for employers per year, or 0.05 percent of the U.S. labor force—that last April, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services rejected 80 percent of applicants. The green card system is also massively backed up. Currently, the Cato Institute estimates that 1.4 million employment-based cases for permanent residency are winding their way through the system. This backlog is ten times the actual number of green cards issued, meaning that two hundred thousand skilled Indian immigrants are likely to die before they can receive a green card—and ninety thousand children, mostly Indian, will “age out” of the system. That is, they will turn twenty-one and become ineligible to receive a green card through their parent, making them unauthorized immigrants if they continue to reside in the United States.
The recent layoffs that have roiled the tech industry have compounded all of these issues. Companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon have laid off nearly twenty thousand IT workers since November 2022. About 40 percent of those skilled workers are Indians who now have to scramble to find another position in the allotted timeframe the temporary work visa gives them. Otherwise, they will have to leave the country or stay on illegally.
Immigration and Migration
As a result of these issues, many skilled Indian workers are now looking to other countries as more welcoming hubs. Canada, for example, has been attracting Indian students in droves, issuing many more visas than the United States and offering a more realistic pathway to permanent residence and citizenship. At the same time, illegal Indian immigration to the United States is increasing. Once insignificant, last year illegal Indian immigration increased by 109 percent.
Immigration law reforms have languished in Congress for decades with virtually no bipartisan avenues for progress. But there is bipartisan consensus on both maintaining India as a crucial strategic partner for the United States, and regarding China as a strategic competitor. Addressing the issues in immigration policy that are affecting the United States’ ability to attract and retain skilled Indian immigrants and maintain a competitive edge over China should be a no-brainer.