From a hated bill for Indian IT, to doubling H-1B visas, immigration reform remained a chimera in 2013

Can Obama resurrect his dream legislation in 2014?

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: The topic of immigration reform proved to be one of the most divisive and most talked-about of everything that transpired politically in 2013. Recently, President Barack Obama stated that not passing comprehensive immigration reform was one of his biggest regrets of the year, and reiterated his commitment to getting the legislation implemented as soon as possible.

That outlook may be a tad optimistic, and immigration made little to no headway after its initial run over the summer. The Gang of Eight bill was passed swiftly by the Senate, but ran into the brick wall of opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. There it stagnated, losing steam – and supporters – until its likelihood of becoming law in 2013 became virtually nil.

Officially known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, the comprehensive immigration reform bill consists of a few significant changes to current immigration policy.

They key provisions it advocates are: creating a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants already within the US, reforming how visas are given out by businesses and educational institutions so that backlogs can be reduced but also facilitate domestic, update the e-Verify system and others to allow better background checking for work authorizations, and improving the path to visa for low-skilled workers.

The bill really hit hard IT companies — particularly those in India, such as Wipro, Infosys, and TCS – who rely largely on importing workers to the US from India to keep them running. The new immigration policy, proposed by the bill, would levy stiff fees on companies that want to bring in foreign workers, an effort to make them look for highly skilled workers within the US so that domestic unemployment numbers reduce and the economy grows.

Infosys had their fair share of trouble with immigration policies this year, getting fined around $35 million for abusing visa laws and regulations by the US Department of Justice. The DoJ also vowed to investigate other Indian companies doing business in the US, as well as IT companies in general which hire multitudes of foreign workers.

Republicans voiced their concerns with the bill’s provisions to allow illegal immigrations a path to citizenship, saying that their citizenship should not come at the expense of those who are waiting patiently by following the legal means to enter the US.

As of now, where does the bill stand? Unfortunately, the outlook is not bright. Last month, US Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) said that immigration reform would have to be passed by early next year, or it likely wouldn’t happen at all, since focus will shift to the Republican Party primaries in 2014.

“If we can’t get it done by early next year, then it’s clearly dead,” he said. “It flatlines.”

Immigration reform will continue to be a hot-button issue as we enter 2014, but if Obama is truly serious about getting it through the increasingly partisan houses of Congress, he’s going to have to do it fast. That may not be so easy, with his administration still reeling from the failed Obamacare rollout, but only the next few months will tell what the future of H-1Bs, Green Cards, and other aspects of immigration will be.

Here’s a timeline on the immigration issue in 2013:

January   

Shortly after taking office for his second and final term as President of the United States, Barack Obama gave a speech at a Las Vegas high school in which he said “time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform.”

As he put it: “I’m here because most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for way too long.  I’m here because business leaders, faith leaders, labor leaders, law enforcement, and leaders from both parties are coming together to say now is the time to find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as the land of opportunity.  Now is the time to do this so we can strengthen our economy and strengthen our country’s future.”

The speech would kick off what would become a banner year for immigration reform, and was the first of Obama’s several overtures in which he stressed his commitment to passing immigration reform during his second term in office, if not this year itself.

February

The GOP comes out in retaliation of Obama’s immigration reform proposals, mostly because Obama and the Democrats support creating a path for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the US with a path to citizenship, giving them green cards in eight years and full citizenship in 13 years. Obama reiterates that it’s critical for both houses of Congress to come to an agreement in order to pass the legislation.

March

Only 88,000 jobs were added over the course of the entire month of March. Low US employment numbers lend credence to the US belief that overseas companies doing business in the US should look to hiring domestically before looking for highly skilled workers abroad. The upcoming Gang of Eight bill includes provisions that levy exorbitant fees on companies that want to bring in workers via H-1B visas, which hits IT companies like Infosys particularly hard.

April

The “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” was introduced onto the floor of the US Senate on April 16 by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and seven other Senators, colloquially known as the “Gang of Eight.” The bill would prove to be the defining legislative aspect of immigration for 2013, and one of the focal points of President Obama’s still-young second term in office. Hearings on the bill were also held in the Senate throughout the month, during which its pros and cons were debated.

May

The Gang of Eight bill is voted out of committee in the Senate, meaning it is now close to being ready for a Senate-wide vote on passage.

June

The Gang of Eight bill was passed by the Senate on June 27. Its passage through one house of Congress is not enough to make it law, however – it needs to be passed through the House of Representatives before it can be put in front of the President and be signed into law. Its relatively event-free time in the Senate is due to largely to the fact that the Senate is largely Democrat, while the House is controlled by the GOP.

July

Despite urging from Obama to the House of Representatives to “finish the job,” the Gang of Eight bill found itself floundering, losing the momentum it had picked up in the Senate. Opponents wanted several of the bill’s provisions re-written or excised altogether, leading to endless debate that ultimately did irrevocable harm to its chances of being passed in 2013.

August

Indian IT firms began ramping up their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill to turn the tide against the Senate-passed version of the Gang of Eight bill. Wipro is reported to have spent roughly $240,000 from January to July in lobbying against the bill; TCS spent somewhere in the area of $30,000 on lobbying over the same time frame, while Cognizant has spent an astounding $520,000 in the January-July timeframe.

September

Manmohan Singh made what will likely be his final visit to the US as the Prime Minister of India. Although the working visit was short – he only stayed for one day en route to a UN summit in New York – Singh and Obama met at the White House to discuss several topics. Although immigration specifically was apparently not heavily discussed, according to the White House, both leaders “pledged to make the next decade equally as transformative, challenging their governments to reach the full potential of this partnership, particularly in the areas of security cooperation, bilateral trade and investment, energy and environment, higher education, and global architecture.”

October

Obamacare went into effect on the first of October, and its website, Healthcare.gov was launched to disastrous results. The ensuing political mess diverted much of the attention away from immigration reform, tabling the legislation while Obama and his administration scrambled to salvage Obamacare.

Infosys’ case with the US government over alleged misuse of H-1B and B-1 visas was settled out of court for close to $35 million. According to an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, Infosys brought an undisclosed number of workers to the US under cheaper and easier to obtain B-1 visas, as opposed to the more typical H-1B visa. The malfeasance was brought to the government’s attention by disgruntled employee Jack Palmer, who was fired by the company in 2011 when he discovered the visa practices.

Also this month, Obama vowed to get the immigration system fixed as soon as possible, and voiced his intention to get comprehensive immigration reform passed by the end of the year.

November

With Obamacare starting to show signs of repair and increased functionality, Obama hit the road to tour the country in order to boost his own approval ratings and to shine light on neglected issues like immigration. In San Francisco, Obama re-committed to getting immigration reform passed as soon as he could, and say bipartisan support for the bill was there on Capitol Hill.

December

On December 12, Indian Deputy Consul General Dr. Devyani Khobragade was arrested in New York City as she dropped her daughter off at school in the morning. The charges brought against were of visa fraud and of keeping a maid, Sangeeta Richard, while paying her well under the city’s minimum wage.

Her arrest became the subject of intense media scrutiny, and ignited a diplomatic row when reports surfaced that Khobragade was strip and cavity searched upon arrest, and would not be allowed diplomatic privileges which could have absolved her of all guilt in the crimes. India protested the US taking such drastic measures rather than working with India behind-the-scenes to resolve the matter quietly.

Each side has its own story, with the US saying that Khobragade’s arrest was necessary but handled with as much discretion as possible, while India says it knew about the problem since June and repeatedly asked for assistance from the US, only to be rebuffed time and time again. But Khobragade’s visa fraud case may lie outside the boundaries of her diplomatic immunity, if she can invoke it, meaning that the US likely knew they could nab her for it and perhaps even wanted to use her as a high-profile example.

Now, incoming Indian Ambassador to the US S. Jaishankar has assumed his position in Washington, DC under unusually heated circumstances between the two nations. While there’s little indication that either country will allow Khobragade’s arrest to completely dissolve relations, but the first few months of 2014 will likely dictate how the rest of the year will go for the US-India bilateral relationship.

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