H-1B, green cards and trade: How US elections will impact Indians

The presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden will affect hundreds of thousands of Indians looking for work and permanent residency in the US.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden
Donald Trump and Joe Biden

In less than a month, American citizens will vote in the 2020 Presidential Election between the incumbent President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee and former VP Joe Biden. Indian-Americans are considered a major voting bloc this year but the US elections also affect many back in India, especially those looking to study or work in the US in the coming years.

Here’s a look at five of the key issues that Indians should care about as the United States heads into its upcoming election: 


Less than a month to go before the US elections, the Donald Trump administration cut back H-1B visas and tightened wage-based entry barriers, justifying the move by citing "data" that more than 500,000 Americans have lost their jobs because of "H-1B non-immigrants".

This would mean that about one-third of the people who have applied for H-1B visas would be denied under the new rules, acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told the media. 

While this comes as a blow to IT and technology companies such as TCS, Infosys, HCL, Google, Facebook, that hire foreign skilled workers under the H-1B visa to work in the US, this is not the first time the Trump administration has put restrictions on non-immigrant work visas.

For the past four years, tightening immigration policies in the US have made headlines in India due to the sheer number of Indians that aspire to move to the US to study and work. A large chunk of these are IT professionals hired by various technology and IT companies.

Indians are the single largest group of H1-B visa-holders accounting for nearly 74% of the work visas. In addition, scores of Indian students go to study in the US every year with the hope of landing a job, and eventually the H-1B visa, post their education.

However, ever since Donald Trump became President, immigration laws have increasingly been tightened, impacting H-1B visa holders in more ways than one. This isn’t surprising, given that Trump came to power with his strong anti-immigrant mandate.

Since 2017, scrutiny and rejections of H-1B visas have increased over the years. According to data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), approval rates have been falling over the years, especially with more applications going for Request for Evidence (RFE).

Denial rates for new H-1B petitions increased from 6% in FY2015 to 24% between October 2018 to June 2019 and further increased to 29% between October 2019-March 2020. Denial rates were below 13% till FY17.

According to an analysis by National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) analysis, over 20 companies saw denial rates increase by at least 10 percentage points between FY15 to FY20.

An RFE is when additional information is sought to ascertain if the employee requesting for an extension of their H-1B is in a specialty occupation, and to ensure that the employee is indeed working for the sponsoring employer, among others.

USCIS data shows that while RFEs were being sought in over 60% of cases in 2018, approval rates after RFEs dropped from 95.7% in 2015 to 61.5% in the first three months of 2019.

Making matters worse, in June 2019, Trump announced suspension of H-1B and other non-immigrant work visas in the US until the end of this year, dealing a blow to several Indian H-1B visa holders who were outside the country when the executive order was signed.

While the order was blocked by a federal judge, placing a hold on damaging visa restrictions put in place by the Trump administration, such restrictions are expected to continue if Trump remains in power.

Uncertain immigration laws not only impact IT professionals, but also India’s massive IT companies such as TCS, Infosys, Wipro, Mindtree, HCL, etc, which are among the highest number of H-1B visa applicants. Constantly changing immigration norms would keep these companies on their toes. They increase costs for these firms and have also resulted in IT firms having to change their hiring strategies over the years.

It is also deterring students from wanting to study in the US. Several education consultancies TNM spoke to said that students are increasingly preferring Canada and UK because of uncertainty over H-1B visas.

Biden, on the other hand, has said that he will reform the H-1B visa system, including wage levels and the cap on the number of visas granted. He has also promised to end the H-1B visa entry ban that is in place. Biden coming to power would restore the status quo on immigration policies, bringing in some certainty for scores of Indians wanting to study and work in the US.

Green card

When it comes to the years-long wait for employment-based green cards, Indians have regularly topped the list. Over 300,000 Indians are waiting in line for US permanent residence cards, the largest nationalistic group, followed by China. Green cards, the United States’ immigration document that allows citizens of other countries to stay and work in the US, is highly sought by Indians who travel to the US on work visas, such as H-1B, and are looking to remain in the country.

Employment-based green cards (as opposed to family-based green cards) is capped at 140,000 annually, with a 7% limit per country.

President Donald Trump has stood firmly on a largely anti-immigrant platform during his campaigns as well as his during his time in the White House. This year, Trump issued a proclamation to suspend the issuance of green cards. Estimates suggest that over 7 lakh Indians make up the years-long backlog for green card recipients, as skilled Indian workers form 75% of employment-based green card petitions. Trump had halted new green cards from being issued in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had caused unemployment to soar in the US. However, some experts pointed out that the suspension could actually help Indians in the green card backlog since family-based green card numbers for this year are rolled over to employment-based quotas for next year.  

Former Vice-President and Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden has been in favour of loosening restrictions around green card issuance to the United States. For one, Biden has indicated that limits on employment-based green cards by country will be eliminated if he is elected. This means that the 7% per country cap will no longer be effective, giving Indians — who form the largest group among green card petitioners — a better chance of getting approved faster. Biden has also stated that he will look to streamline the naturalisation process — the path through which green card holders can become US citizens — as well as favouring approval of green cards for doctoral students, who typically remain in the country for multi-year programs.


US is reportedly India’s biggest trading partner and has been the top one for the past two years, with India also having a trade surplus with the US. Therefore, the US Presidential Elections will be keenly watched by India, as the outcome will have a bearing on its trade relations with the US.

Trump, on several occasions, has openly talked about his support to and from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The bonhomie between the two leaders is no secret to the world, but the optics don’t seem to have translated into much on ground.

The Trump administration slapped new tariffs on steel and aluminium imports on several countries including India in 2018. It also removed India from the preferential trade program Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) list in 2019. This move came just before his visit to India.

Both countries, at the time, were talking about a trade deal to resolve tariff disputes that the countries have been facing. This deal was supposed to be signed during Trump’s visit to India in February, but nothing materialised.

The window for the US-India ‘mini trade deal’ is fast closing with the elections less than 30 days away. According to reports, US and India are working on smoothening out trade issues before finalising a deal.

While Trump has lacked consistency in his stance with India, his strong resentment towards China stands to benefit India, which is looking to make itself an alternate investment destination to China.

Meanwhile, Biden has a history of benefitting Indian trade. In 2001, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Biden pushed to end sanctions imposed against India. As Vice President to Barack Obama, Biden worked with the then President on resolving several trade issues between both countries, which signed several MoUs to boost economic and trade ties.

Biden, through the campaign, has said that his administration will place a "high priority" to strengthen the India-US relationship.

His policy document on Indian Americans states, “Biden will deliver on his long-standing belief that India and the United States are natural partners, and a Biden Administration will place a high priority on continuing to strengthen the U.S.-India relationship… Together, we will continue strengthening India’s defense and capabilities as a counter-terrorism partner, improving health systems and pandemic response, and deepening cooperation in areas such as higher education, space exploration, and humanitarian relief.”

Experts say that a Biden administration will augur well for India and that there is a higher chance of resolution of trade issues between both countries in a systematic manner, as has been seen before.

However, Bloomberg quotes experts as saying that India is likely to benefit on both ends where Biden’s win would mean more favourable trade policies and a Trump win would benefit India with an easy Fed policy.

Domestic issues

Amid Trump’s bonhomie with PM Modi, Trump has offered to meditate during the Kashmir issue last year where he reportedly said that there are two sides to every story. However, there is little evidence of Trump offering advice, or commenting on issues in the country.

Ahead of his visit to India in February 2020, officials from the Trump administration said that he would raise issues over ‘religious freedom’, referring to CAA and NRC during his meeting with Modi.

However, Trump reportedly said at a press conference later, “We discussed it. Prime Minister Modi said they work very closely with Muslims.”

However, on CAA he said, "I don't want to say anything on CAA. It is up to India. I hope it will take the right decision for its people.”

Biden and his Vice President candidate Kamala Harris, however, have been quite vocal about the Kashmir issue and the passing of CAA. In Biden’s agenda for Muslim-American communities, Biden expressed his disappointment by the measures taken by the Modi government with regard to implementation and aftermath of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act into law.

“These measures are inconsistent with the country’s long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy,” the agenda stated.

On Kashmir, his agenda further said, “In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir.  Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy.”

India-China relations

India’s border dispute with China has led to soaring tensions between the two countries, and the United States and Trump appear to have repeatedly signalled their support for India. According to the New York Times, the dispute involving India and China has “accelerated relations” between India and the US, even as friendly relations between the two have increased in the last several years. The India-US alliance is bolstered by enmity expressed by Trump against China, whom he sees as a rival, the Times reported.

Trump has actively engaged in trade wars with China, as both have slapped duties on goods from each other’s countries. Though some of those tariffs were lifted this year, the animosity between the two countries has not gone away, the Washington Post reported. Trump has also repeated through his campaign that he will be tougher on China than Biden.

Biden has also expressed his support for India and his dedication to ensuring that no country “is able to threaten its neighbours with impunity,” including China, his campaign had said in a policy document released earlier.  

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