The US immigration system needs to be more merit-based for a competitive economy

The US immigration system is quite unique, since the country has a lot of categories under which people can apply for a visa. The visa policy in the country has been shaped by the American belief in fairness, justice etc. However, there is a strong case for making the visa system for professionals more merit-based and, therefore, making the US economy more competitive.

There is almost no real logic behind who gets an H-1B visa. Photo courtesy: Canva

Take the H-1B visa, which is so important to Indians. The H-1B was set up for high-skilled workers and immigrants who would bring certain skill sets to American companies. The United States has lagged behind in providing engineering graduates and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) talent. But what has happened with the H-1B lottery system is that there is almost no real logic behind who gets an H-1B visa.

There is, to an extent, a homogeneity of people who may have good engineering and tech degrees applying for an H-1B. But you may have someone with a double Master’s from MIT (hypothetically, in cutting-edge AI) lose out to someone with a grad degree in some other programme. It is as random as that.

I would joke earlier that the Indian education system was “ABC H-1B”. What did I mean by that? Up to the 1990s and until the recession, there was an intellectual arranged marriage approach in India, the outcome being going to the US. It was like you would flirt with the humanities, but you would marry STEM. You would do well till the 12th (in school) in humanities or till the 10th, and then you would focus on STEM. Your prodigious talent in STEM would take you to the US, where you would be able to get a grad school degree in STEM and the career path would take you to Wall Street or Silicon Valley, where you would get a job in banking, finance, consulting, tech etc, and then the H-1B would become a green card and your green card would become citizenship, and your children would be born in the US as citizens.

That changed after 2008 — it became harder to come to the US, layoffs happened after the recession, H-1B became a lottery.

So, initially, a lot of Indians would come to the US for the education and stay for the employment; but with the H-1B visa lottery, that number just became fewer and fewer.

This is where the United States of America is missing the forest for the trees. As a lot of H-1B visa applications are getting rejected (through the lottery), a lot of qualified immigrants who would be beneficiaries of the US economic opportunities and who would bring benefits of skilled talent to the US are now missing out.

In the post-pandemic era and with the work visa uncertainty, Indians might not want to come to the US for an education at all. Picture courtesy: Canva

What will happen is that they will either go to other countries like Canada, which have a PR (permanent residency) immigration system, or they will look at maybe not even coming to the US for education. It is a broken immigration system in the US, so there is an urgent need for reforms.

Other than the H-1B visa lottery, where a highly qualified person can randomly get rejected, the green card system allows someone to bring over a less qualified family member to the US, stepping over someone who is more qualified and is waiting for a visa.

The H-1B has to lead to the green card. The H-1B is a temporary visa, a non-immigrant visa (NIV). What you want is an immigrant visa; you want to get the green card. But this does not always work, and deserving immigrants miss out.

Because of what we have already said about STEM in the US, it is immigrant talent that has largely driven the successes of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The broken immigration system prevents more such talent from staying permanently in the US and contributing to the economy.

For instance, even if you do get an H-1B, you could lose out on a green card as an Indian national who was born in India. This is because of the country-specific green card backlog. If you are an Indian national born in Saudi Arabia or in Kuwait, your chances of being processed as a work-sponsored H-1B visa holder to a green card holder is much higher, compared to the chances of an Indian born in India.

Then, there is the process of applying for a green card. The H1-B visa is a “3 plus 3” system. You get your H-1B for three years and you are allowed one renewal, and after that, it is either green card or bust. The company has to apply for a green card for you; and sometimes, companies do not want to do that. A lot of companies just cannot afford to do it — the cost of the paperwork is too high. A small or medium enterprise more often than not just cannot do it; the big tech companies are the ones that have the legal processing power to do it.

Any immigration reforms, if they were to come, should open the door wider to merit and simplify the paperwork, so that the US economy can strengthen itself by attracting the most talented and committed people.

As told to Sanchita Guha