Presenting a powerful moral argument that America is and will always be a nation of immigrants, US President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that he would exercise his executive prerogative to protect nearly four million undocumented immigrants from deportation while streamlining procedures to retain in the US skilled foreign tech students and workers, many of whom are from China and India.
In a 15-minute prime time address to the nation, Obama invoked some of the most fundamental ideals of the United States to make his case, reminding those who opposed immigration that, “We were strangers once, too.”
“Whether our forbears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship,” he told Americans, many of who have forgotten they were immigrants too.
While the President’s executive orders will largely pertain to an estimated 4.1 million undocumented parents of US-born children (and therefore citizens) and about 300,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the US illegally as children, he also announced broad procedural changes that will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to the American economy in a transparent effort to maintain US edge over other nations.
According to a factsheet issued by the White House, the President will act to provide portable work authorization for high-skilled workers waiting their Legal Permanent Residency (LPR, also called green cards), including to their spouses. Under the current system, employees with approved LPR applications are often in limbo while waiting for the process, which can take several years, to conclude, unable to switch jobs or cities or even marry.
The factsheet says the Department of Homeland Security will make regulatory changes to allow these workers, usually on H-1B visas, to move or change jobs more easily. DHS, it said, is also finalizing new rules to give certain H-1B spouses employment authorization as long as the H-1B spouse also has an approved LPR application. Tens of thousands of Indian H1-B workers and their spouses are expected to benefit from this.
The executive order will also strengthen and extend on-the-job training for STEM graduates of US universities in an effort to keep them in the US. “In order to strengthen educational experiences of foreign students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at US universities, DHS will propose changes to expand and extend the use of the existing Optional Practical Training (OPT) program and require stronger ties between OPT students and their colleges and universities following graduation,” the factsheet said. There are more than 100,000 Indian students in the US, nearly 70 per cent of them in STEM courses.
The proposal stops well short of “stapling a green card to a foreign student’s US degree” that some votaries wanted, but it points to more breathing room for graduating students, many of whom are forced to return home if they have not snagged a job within the year-old OPT timeframe. The President’s long-time gripe, fueled by high-tech immigration advocates like Bill Gates and Vivek Wadhwa, has been that foreign students trained in the US often return home to start businesses because of the broken immigration system that does not keep them in the US to contribute to the American economy.
The executive order will also direct DHS will expand immigration options for foreign entrepreneurs who meet certain criteria for creating jobs, attracting investment, and generating revenue in the US, “to ensure that our system encourages them to grow our economy.” DHS will clarify its guidance on temporary L-1 visas for foreign workers — used by a number of Indian companies — who transfer from a company’s foreign office to its US office. The Labor Department will take regulatory action to modernize the labor market test that is required of employers that sponsor foreign workers for immigrant visas while ensuring that American workers are protected.
The President’s announcement brought mixed reaction in the Indian/South Asian/Asian circles that had felt there was too much emphasis on the illegal or undocumented immigration from the Hispanic world as opposed to the largely legal workforce from Asia caught in limbo because of procedural wrangles and archaic rules.
“The proposed executive order could provide relief for over 4 million undocumented aspiring Americans, including tens of thousands — if not more — South Asians. Coupled with proposals to expand available visas and address long wait times for many immigrants, this relief is welcome news to South Asians nationwide as we continue to work toward a legislative solution,” said Suman Ranganathan, executive director of organisation SAALT, for Strengthening South Asian Communities in America.
But Congressman Mike Honda, re-elected recently from Silicon Valley, felt it did not go far enough. “There are many areas needed for true immigration reform that this executive action does not immediately address, including the backlog of visa petitions filed by citizens and green card holders, an increase in H-1B visas that attract the top business and tech talent to Silicon Valley and the nation, and reducing the employment visa backlog,” he said, adding, “Our businesses need to be able to attract high-skilled workers from around the globe to stay competitive and improve our economy; and those workers need a way to have their families join them in America.”