By Amy Bhatt and Sareeta Amrute
On #ADayWithoutImmigrants, workers who are vital to the operation of restaurants to agriculture to healthcare stayed home to protest the current White House’s appalling immigration policy agenda. Visibly missing from these protests were the scores of immigrants from India (though not all) who keep the U.S. technology and finance sectors running as temporary workers.
Why is this the case? Among Indians, there have been mixed responses about the White House actions, even though Indians are the second largest immigrant group after Mexicans and the fastest growing population of undocumented immigrants. In a 2016 campaign video, the current president declared that Indians and Indian Americans would have a true friend in the White House in Hindi. While the video was ridiculed as clumsy pandering, it was also praised by Indian American groups who saw a strong leader willing to take a hard line. Many from those right-wing Hindu groups celebrated when this president banned travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The next series of leaked executive orders on immigration should give those same supporters pause. The draft of the “Executive Order on Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs” promises to crack down on popular temporary worker visas such as the H-1B, the majority of which go to Indians. Though the EO remains vague, some of its content echoes multiple bi-partisan bills introduced in Congress by Darrel Issa (R-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and others.
There are several problems with this approach. First, finding enough qualified workers to fill vacancies in the tight labor markets of the tech and finance industries (which use the majority of H-1Bs) is a major problem. In these two sectors, unemployment is almost half of the national rate of 4.8 percent. Restricting companies’ ability to hire the most qualified workers from a global pool further narrows the already intense competition for talent. It also blames foreign workers for American unemployment, not cuts to education and training programs. Without these training opportunities, new U.S. workers will not magically materialize.
Second, the pledge to “review all regulations that allow foreign nationals to work in the United States” is a thinly veiled reference to counteracting President Obama’s executive order granting the spouses of temporary workers the right to work. Revoking this right would particularly hurt women, sending them back into the home rather than adding their talents to the U.S. economy.
Third, the draft suggests restrictions for foreign students. As foreign nationals, these future workers already pay more than domestic students when studying in the U.S. and are limited from working off-campus. Eliminating or reducing the Optional Practical Training program (OPT) would mean that potential contributors to fields such as education, medicine, science, literature, philosophy, and anthropology would simply be sent packing. This hurts companies and institutions that could benefit from their U.S. training and does nothing to retain the “best and brightest”.
Whether addressing asylum seekers or knowledge workers, these immigration restrictions make one thing clear: all immigrants are vulnerable, regardless of education level, background, country of origin, or religion. For years, the United States, European countries and Australia have prioritized “skilled” professionals over “unskilled” workers. These divisions obscure the underlying commonality that immigrants face as outsiders, regardless of their status. Now, these pretensions have fallen away.
Beyond joining the groundswell of outrage condemning the administration’s attack on immigration, tech workers and the companies that employ them need to recognize and make common cause with all immigrants, as well as with the movement for black lives, and the movement to protect indigenous sovereignty. This means thinking historically, standing up when low-income immigrants are attacked and finding solidarity across immigration status.
The harassment, detainment and deportation of foreigners is not restricted to those who come from one of the seven banned countries or are undocumented. Fear and policing are impacting many others who have legal permanent residency, dual citizenship, or are simply considered suspect because of the color of their skin or their names. The line between desirable and undesirable, high and low skilled, migrant and minority is becoming increasingly thin as more people lose their liberties, even when they are most vulnerable.
For those who think they might get lucky in this new regime, they won’t. Cracking down on all forms of immigration will only make the United States less attractive to talented people and it will push corporations toward even more automation and off shoring. These actions won’t protect jobs or the nation—they are simply anti-immigrant and anti-worker. It’s time to join the protests.
Amy Bhatt is Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest.
Sareeta Amrute is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington and author of Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin.