The United Nations reported, in its 2020 International Migration Highlights, that the Indian diaspora is the world's largest and that "in 2020, 18 million persons from India were living outside of their country of birth." The United States receives the second-highest number of Indian immigrants, after the United Arab Emirates.
By far, the US visa type most used by Indians to enter the country is the H1-B, known as the work visa. In the last decade, 1,147,630 H1-B visas have been issued to Indian nationals. The second most common visa issued to Indians is the F-1 student visa (451,512), followed by the L-1 visa (237,876), used for intracompany transfers of managers and executives. Though popular, all three are nonimmigrant visas that need constant renewal and have suffered significant impacts in the last year — some would say because of the COVID-19 pandemic, others because of anti-immigrant actions taken by then-president Donald Trump’s administration. A combination of both is most likely.
Even before the pandemic, the number of L-1 applications decreased considerably. Approvals and renewals became stricter and discouraged applicants, according to industry experts. In addition, when the pandemic took hold last year, L-1 and H1-B visa issuances were suspended for workers, spouses, and children under executive orders signed by Trump on June 22, 2020. With the economy highly affected by COVID-19, and to preserve American jobs for American citizens, one of the Trump presidency’s last actions was to reformulate the H1-B rules from lottery-based to a selection based on wage levels. This change would affect not only visa holders but also many industries that depend on the talents of foreigners who use the H1-B visa to stay in the country, as is the case for many Silicon Valley firms and tech workers in general, among others. Finally, after receiving comments from industry stakeholders, the Department of Labor decided on May 13, 2021, to delay the effective date until November 14, 2022.
F-1 students also faced restrictions from executive orders issued in the wake of the pandemic. Many students were prohibited from entering the country unless some of their classes took place on campus, whereas many universities switched their 2020–2021 classes to online only. The uncertainty about whether they could enter or stay in the country led many students to delay their 2020–2021 term for a year, with consequences yet to be seen. We can certainly predict a tougher admissions process in the next year or two (with more applications) and a shortage of young professionals in three-five years (with fewer graduates).
Although these "student bans" and "travel bans" were lifted by Joe Biden in his first month as US president, they pointed up the differences between immigrant visas, such as those in the EB categories, and far less certain nonimmigrant visas. The main advantage is that immigrant visas, which lead to a green card, show that the applicant intends to live permanently in the country. An example of the flexibility offered by the green card: holders were unaffected by the restrictions imposed by Trump's executive orders.
Indian nationals have been among the top 10 EB-5 visa applicants for over 10 years and in 2019 jumped to second place among EB-5 visa recipients, behind China. The EB-5 investor visa requires a minimum investment of $900,000 and the creation of at least 10 full-time jobs in the American economy. Applicants and their immediate family (spouse and children under age 21) are eligible to receive green cards if all visa requirements are met. Nearly 80,000 foreign nationals have invested in the EB-5 program since its advent in 1990. We estimate that over 200,000 individuals have come through the program, received their green cards, and are working, studying, and building businesses in the US.
EB-5 regulations changed in November 2019 which, alongside COVID-19, impacted the EB-5 industry, decreasing the number of applicants in 2020 as well as the number of companies that offer EB-5 projects. Stakeholders believe this development is forcing regional centers, developers, and immigration attorneys to be more professional and sophisticated in their offerings. 2021 has already shown increased EB-5 activity, including a US Senate proposal to reformulate the program intended to add more integrity measures and reauthorize the Regional Center program for the next five years.
As expected, the Biden administration so far seems more pro-immigration. The nominees for key roles include names with professional experience in the field, such as Alejandro Mayorkas for DHS secretary, who is credited with "professionalising" the USCIS Immigrant Processing Office under Barack Obama. Travel bans have been rapidly lifted as promised, and there has been a recent reactivation to the International Entrepreneur Rule (IRE), known as the Startup Visa, that had risked being rescinded by Trump.
In general, people are more optimistic about the future seeing the US government take bold actions—the first and second Covid Relief Bills, and of course, the vaccination program shows what the US can do to take care of its citizens. If anything, the pandemic has shown that the world is more interconnected than ever and the great importance of travel flexibility. Programs of residency by investment are likely to grow in upcoming months, offering applicants alternative options and assisting the country in its economic recovery.
The author, Suresh Rajan is the executive chairman and founder of LCR Capital Partners. Views expressed are personal
First Published: IST