Standby for some more demonisation of immigrants and immigration in the United States after the latest attempted terrorist attack on the New York City subway system. In this mercifully cartoonish effort, a Bangladeshi immigrant injured no one but himself after his homemade pipe bomb detonated only partially on his person, even as he was subdued by police officers. He also hurt the cause of free movement of labour, workers, and services at an already fraught time.
The heat is now as much on the immigration route 27 years old Akayed Ullah took as on his motivation for attempting mayhem in Manhattan. It transpires that he got his US permanent residency in 2011 through what is known as an F-43 visa that allowed his uncle, an American citizen, to sponsor him. Such citizens, immigrants themselves, can sponsor their brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews in a “chain migration” process that allows them to bring unlimited number of extended family members to America.
President Donald Trump among others has called for an end to this family-based chain migration because it allows into US “far too many inadequately vetted people”, who add little by way of economic value. There is some merit in this argument. While immigration of immediate family is understandable, extended family immigration involving “chacha-bhatija”, which is what allowed the Bangladeshi bomber a free ticket into the US, is out of tune with 21st century needs.
Immigration to the US has long been based primarily on the “reunification of family” principle, followed by admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the US economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity. Of the nearly 13 million foreign nationals who have entered the US through the legal immigration system between 2005 and 2016, more than 9 million – or nearly 70% – have come as “chain migrants”. This makes family-based chain migration the largest driver of immigration to the US. According to one account, 1,40,000 Bangladeshi nationals have entered the US since 2005 for no other reason than to reunite with extended family members. In contrast, only 1 in 15 immigrants come to the US based on skills and employment purposes.
Greater weightage to family-based immigration and the diversity visa lottery, which doles out 50,000 visas annually to foreign nationals from a multitude of countries to enhance ethnic diversity in the US, is of less use to India than skills-based immigration. In fact, India and China are among countries excluded from the diversity visa lottery, because as nations with large populations, it is argued sufficient numbers will emigrate in normal course.
The current system and its priorities put India more than any other country at a disadvantage because its skilled and English-speaking people are its biggest economic asset, even more than Chinese would be for China. This is evident in the manner in which people of Indian origin occupy high posts in politics, public life, business, academia and other spheres, far more than the numerically stronger Chinese-Americans.
Immigration, or more accurately the free movement of people, is more of a trade and commerce issue for India. In fact, India does not even need an immigration quota, just a fair system where its skilled workforce can get a fair shake of business across the world. A country that produces a million job seekers every month and is seeking to create 500 million jobs for its people needs access to travel and work as much it does for its goods – within reasonable limits of course.
India needs to negotiate a new movement of people compact not just with the US but also geographically large countries such as Canada, Australia, and even Russia, where nativism runs strong. The compact need not involve permanent immigration but a movement of people that allows services, particularly in areas such as education and healthcare, particularly geriatric care.
Those who have in the past feared that this leads to “brain drain” have been answered by that inelegant formulation: “Brain drain is better than brain in the drain.” Mother India is fecund enough to produce not just an endless supply of drudges, but also professionals of derring-do. The US has absorbed nearly 1,00,000 Indian doctors? No reason India cannot produce more. More than 5,00,000 Indian engineers have moved to the US? Why not a million? In fact, why not get US institutions and businesses to invest in engineering, medical, nursing, and management schools? A small beginning has been made with institutions such as Indian School of Business; not nearly enough.
All this would require a radical rethink in the immigration and travel paradigm between India and major economies of the world. India is not only bounteous in human resources of both the skilled and unskilled variety, but itinerant Indians are also ideologically benign. As some past US presidents have observed, the country’s democratic dividend defuses the worst extremist tendency that is the hallmark of many other countries.
Just around the time the Bangladeshi bomber embarked on his mayhem in Manhattan mission, the Trump administration was holding its 31st biannual “Migration Talks” with Cuba – not America’s best friend – where Washington confirmed that it met its annual commitment in fiscal year 2017 to facilitate legal migration of 20,000 Cubans. So there’s the cue and the template. India should set its people free; US and other countries should let them travel if not migrate. It will benefit all sides.