Tag Archives: Diaspora

Secretary Clinton’s Diaspora Engagement Alliance: Opportunities for the Indian Diaspora

Guest post by Madhavi Bhasin

In the same week that President Obama delivered his much awaited Middle East speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inaugurated the State Department’s new diplomatic outreach initiative – The Global Diaspora Forum held from May 17-19, 2011. The initiative, christened as idEA (International Diaspora Engagement Alliance) is based on simple understanding: Diaspora communities often have the local knowledge and contacts; US Government agencies have the technical expertise, global presence, and convening power. Based on these complementarities, the State Department shall develop new diaspora-centric partnership models and undertaking new programs to encourage intra-diaspora collaboration and learning.

newDuring the Forum, hosted jointly by the State Department, USAID and Migration Policy Institute, a host of initiatives were launched to partner closely with the diaspora communities to further United State’s international diplomacy and development efforts. The goal of the Forum, as stated by Secretary Clinton was to 1) recognize and celebrate the contribution of diaspora communities to America’s relationship with their countries of origin or ancestry, 2) foster diaspora-centric partnership models, and 3) encourage intra-diaspora collaboration and learning.

It is somewhat strange that given the usual hype over any development in Indo-US relations, the Diaspora Forum was overlooked in the mainstream media as well as social media avowedly utilized by non-profits based out of US. This could be attributed to the fact that diaspora philanthropy and partnership for social entrepreneurship between U.S. and India is considered less important than the bilateral political and strategic partnership. However, the programs launched during the Forum present an important window of opportunity for the Indian Diaspora to deepen social, economic and cultural partnership between the two countries.

Secretary Clinton during her speech identified the diaspora communities as wielders of smart power. According to her, “You [the diaspora communities] have the potential to be the most powerful people-to-people asset we can bring to the world’s table. Because of your familiarity with cultural norms, your own motivations, your own special skills and leadership, you are, frankly, our Peace Corps, our USAID, our OPIC, our State Department all rolled into one.”

According to the Migration Information Source, U.S. is home to 1.6 million Indian immigrants, the third largest migrant group in the country. Given the numbers and potential of the Indian Diaspora, the Forum offers great opportunities to forge creative partnerships. Some of the proposed avenues for collaboration include the following.

diasphilanthropy: Diaspora Philanthropy is not a new phenomenon. Indian Diaspora has been actively involved in philanthropy over the past decades through professional associations, faith-based groups, hometown associations and individual contributions. However, the community needs to invest more thought and effort into ensuring mechanisms for strategic giving. Philanthropy is not merely an emotionally induced social commitment but is also a strategic economic decision. While the community is fervently involved in making donations, it is equally important to invest in research to identify the most urgent social challenges, explore innovative solutions and ensure goal compliance. While giving is important, it is critical to ensure that the donations are impactful on the ground. It would be helpful if some members of the community devise and publicize tools to identify social causes demanding urgent action, provide lists of organizations involved in advocating the causes, offer secure and easy options to make donations and provide regular updates on progress made and challenges encountered. Making philanthropy simpler and strategic is both desirable and necessary.

diaspora 2.0: The Indian Diaspora in the U.S. is uniquely positioned to foster communication and information technologies for enhancing and deepening engagement. Given the diaspora’s extensive talent in ICT it is possible to create virtual communities and devise ways sharing information and resources online. While social networks have emerged as the best medium to engage the diaspora, it’s essential to bring some order to the chaos of information available online. For example, several U.S. based non-profits working on social empowerment projects in India are currently competing for the Chase Community Giving Event. Though each organization approached its faithful supporters through Facebook and twitter, there was no attempt to involve the diaspora as a community by providing information on various organizations and monitoring the vote count for each. By voting for different charities, the collective strength of the diaspora was reduced with the possibility that no non-profit working on challenges in India secures the top slot. It’s important to use the communication tools to operate as a collective force rather than contribute individually.

diasporacorps: Apart from sharing monetary resources it is important for the Indian Diaspora to share time and talent to make a difference on the ground. There is great scope to encourage diaspora volunteerism among the members of the Indian community based in US. Teach for India and Indicorps are some platforms that offer such opportunities. However, most of these volunteer opportunities tend to target youth and students, leaving a huge resource pool untapped. Technology professionals, teachers, small business owners, home-makers, farmers, nurses – Indian immigrants in every walk of life can contribute to social innovation in their own ways. It’s important to mobilize these members of the community and provide meaningful volunteer opportunities to them. Every member of the diaspora needs to be made aware of his/her potential as a volunteer.

diasplomacy: Diaspora diplomacy is traditionally related to political lobbying for issues such as work permits, migration status or bilateral trade and strategic relations. Kathleen Newland of Migration Policy Institute has discussed in a Report, published in November 2010, the advocacy and lobbying trends and techniques among the various diaspora communities in the US. The Report appreciates the efforts of the USINPAC (US India Political Action Committee) in persuading the U.S. Congress to pass the 2008 Indo-U.S. Civilian Nuclear Agreement. Non-traditional mediums such as sports, arts and culture (which contribute to creating the image of India) need to be used strategically for advocacy purposes. Advocacy and diplomacy are the strengths of the Indian diaspora that can be employed in promoting creative partnerships.

diaspreneuership: The entrepreneurial spirit of the Indian Diaspora has received numerous accolades in the U.S. and across the globe. It’s time to utilize the entrepreneurial skills in identifying opportunities in India, to exploit such opportunities as “first movers,” and to contribute to job creation and economic growth. The State Department plans to support diaspora entrepreneurs in investing and building enterprises as well as stimulating trade in countries of origin. This provides the Indian Diaspora the encouragement and support to contribute to India’s economic growth.

The Secretary’s Global Diaspora Forum sought to challenge diaspora communities to forge partnerships with the private sector, civil society, and public institutions in order to make their engagements with their countries of origin or ancestry effective, scalable, and sustainable. It is essential for the Indian Diaspora to take this challenge and actively contribute to idEA. Hopefully, the Indian Diaspora will contribute to this Alliance by providing innovative ideas for partnership and mobilizing the immigrant community to get involved in the emerging venture.

(Madhavi Bhasin is a Visiting Scholar at Center for South Asia Studies, UC Berkeley and Program Coordinator at Global India Foundation. All views expressed here are those of the author and do not releflect the opinions of USINPAC.)

Winning the Future Together

The global ascendance of India as an economic power, technology hub and a source of professional talent will create major opportunities for Indian and multinational businesses alike. But this development has also injected a not-insignificant measure of zero-sum thinking into US-India economic affairs, especially in the area of human capital. These contradictory themes are a growing source of irritation, but if managed smartly could also be a good opportunity for advancing the bilateral relationship.

These contradictions have been in full view in recent months. Last year saw the rise of a populist anti-India backlash as Americans increasingly blamed the country for their economic hardships. Election campaigns trafficked in the outsourcing issue, Congress enacted heavy India-specific fee hikes on the H-1B temporary visa program for skilled foreign workers, and President Obama called for tightening tax penalties on corporate outsourcing in language that pitted U.S. prosperity against that of India’s.

Yet when Mr. Obama arrived in India for a state visit last November, his rhetoric markedly shifted. The country was now portrayed as an economic opportunity too golden to pass up; indeed, the main purpose of his visit seemed to be securing as many commercial deals for American companies as possible. In an address to Indian corporate leaders in Mumbai, he emphasized that “in our interconnected world, increased commerce between the United States and India can be and will be a win-win proposition for both nations. I realize that for some, this truth may not be readily apparent.” For good measure, he added that “there still exists a caricature of India as a land of call centers and back offices that cost American jobs. But these old stereotypes, these old concerns ignore today’s reality.”

The antinomies of the bilateral economic relationship similarly were on display in Obama’s State of the Union address in January. He cited the growth of science and technology capacity in China and India as a threat to America’s competitive edge, while also acknowledging that continued U.S. prosperity requires greater access to the human capital originating from both countries. The success of U.S. enterprises engaged in the advanced technology sectors Mr. Obama identified in his address as key to “winning the future” will increasingly depend on access to the global reservoir of skilled professionals, of which India is a major contributor. The president admitted as much when he criticized the self-defeating nature of U.S. immigration policy: “[Students] come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities.  But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us.  It makes no sense.”

The President has regularly sounded off on this latter theme, most recently in a series of events over the last month aimed at reviving the issue of immigration reform.  In a speech in El Paso earlier this month, for example, he noted that:

[W]e provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities. But our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or power a new industry right here in the United States. So instead of training entrepreneurs to create jobs in America, we train them to create jobs for our competition. That makes no sense. In a global marketplace, we need all the talent we can get – not just to benefit those individuals, but because their contributions will benefit all Americans.

The President added that “We don’t want the next Intel or Google to be created in China or India. We want those companies and jobs to take root in America.”*

Obama’s remarks picks up a proposal he made during the last presidential campaign to create a “fast track” mechanism allowing foreign students with advanced technical degrees from U.S. institutions to receive an employment-based visa. At present, 20,000 H-1B visas are reserved for such graduates – many of whom are Indian – though demand greatly eclipses this number.

Although immigration policy remains a hotly-contested issue, the adverse consequences of limiting U.S. access to foreign-born skilled labor are widely acknowledged. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, is at the head of a broad group of civic and business leaders calling for a job-creation strategy based on visa reform.

The United States has been able to maintain its global preeminence in no small part due to the influx of foreign science and engineering professionals and graduate students. Immigrants comprise nearly half of the science and engineering workforce holding PhD degrees. High-skilled immigrants are a significant driving force of American prosperity and innovation, most famously in building the information technology industry.  Research indicates, for instance, that Indian immigrant entrepreneurs play a leading role in founding some of the most dynamic high-tech companies. Studies also point to the valuable entrepreneurial streak immigrants possess: They are 30 percent more likely to form new businesses than native-born Americans, and foreign-born university graduates are some three-times more likely to file patent applications than US-born citizens.

Foreign-born scientific and engineering talent – particularly Indian – is an important pillar of the faculties in America’s top universities. And foreign students earn the majority of engineering doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. universities, and of this number a large percentage opt to remain in the country for some period of time. Their presence, along with other high-skilled immigrants, has helped the U.S. technology workforce expand at a faster rate than the United States is graduating native-born scientists and engineers.

America’s dependence on foreign-born technology professionals will shortly become all the greater. Since younger native-born workers tend to lack the skill levels of their baby boomer parents now nearing retirement age, the United States could face broad and substantial skill shortages in the coming decade. Thus, the United States should be promoting greater access to the global talent pool, and India is a good place to start.

With India a major source of high-skill professionals and the U.S. needing to draw on foreign talent to fortify its own science and engineering workforce, both countries have a keen mutual interest in cooperating in the area of human capital, the most critical resource in the dawning global innovation economy. To this end, Washington and New Delhi should conclude a bilateral agreement guaranteeing a set number of temporary work visas for high-skill Indian professionals. The United States has crafted bilateral agreements with a select number of other countries that could serve as a template, including the TN temporary visa program (created via the North American Free Trade Agreement) that exempts qualified Canadian and Mexican professionals from the annual quota on H-1B work permits.

Admittedly, important constituencies in both countries regard the global talent pool as a zero-sum equation.  In the United States, some argue that increased mobility of foreign high-skill workers will displace or depress wages of native professionals. The empirical evidence, however, suggests that greater numbers of talented immigrants actually supports job creation in the United States and that immigrant entrepreneurs complement rather than crowd out native-born counterparts.

India likewise would stand to benefit from the increased mobility of its technology professionals. Instead of causing “brain drain,” the global innovation economy is actually generating “brain circulation” or a “brain chain,” in which expatriate talent returns home with acquired capital, skills and knowledge, as well as personal links to transnational entrepreneurial and technological networks. Obviously, some of the high-skill Indians who benefit from the bilateral immigration accord will choose to remain permanently in the United States, though they would in time contribute a significant stream of remittance income and serve an important bridging function between Indian innovators and entrepreneurs and those in other countries.  But others, empowered by new ideas and experiences, will return in time and play a direct role in the nation’s development; indeed, this process is already underway (see here and here).

The United States and India are prime constituents in the brain circulation process. Far from seeing access to the global talent pool as a competitive proposition, the interdependency of their skills base requires them to act in a cooperative, synergistic way. Doing so not only makes sound economic sense for both countries, but would also strengthen the foundation of US-India relations.

* Ironically, as Mr. Obama was uttering these words, the Indian science minister was lamenting that the country’s lack of innovation infrastructure keeps India from producing companies like Google and Blackberry.

Why (and What) Are Indians Studying In The United States?

Indian students are a key source of future immigrants to the United States. Many of these students are recruited off U.S. campuses to work in America and are sponsored for permanent residence (a green card). But why do Indian students come here? And what are they studying?

A primary reason anyone desires to study abroad is the belief that education in another country will offer a unique benefit or perspective, or be important for a future career. When U.S. students go abroad it’s more likely to be for a semester or a year, rather than for a full degree program. However, a chance to earn a degree from a prestigious university, such as the London School of Economics, is valued. But in many cases, Americans are seeking unique cultural opportunities when studying abroad, particularly the chance to master another language.

In the case of Indians, there is great interest in gaining a degree abroad that will advance career goals. The majority of Indians come here to earn a masters or Ph.D. In the 2009/2010 academic year, 65 percent of Indian students in the United States were enrolled in a graduate program, compared to 14.5 percent in undergraduate programs (and 18.7 percent in Optional Practical Training), according to the Institute of International Education. That is much different than for countries as a whole, where the number of students seeking a bachelor’s degree and graduate degree is about even for international students coming to the United States.

There appears to be a strong sense among Indians coming here that an American university education is most valuable in engineering, computer science or business. As Table 1 shows, in the 2009/2010 academic year nearly 40 percent of Indian students in America were enrolled in engineering programs at U.S. colleges, according to the Institute of International Education; approximately 20 percent were in math/computer science and 15 percent in business/management. While 10 percent were in physical/life science, only 5 percent were enrolled in health professions, 3 percent in social sciences and 0.6 percent in humanities. Indians are not coming to America in great numbers to earn a degree in history or sociology.

Table 1

                                                    Indian Students By Field of Study in U.S.: 2009/2010

Business/Management Engineering Physical/Life Sciences Math/Computer Science Social Science Health Professions
Percentage of Indian Students in Field 15.3% 38.8 % 10.2% 19.8% 3% 4.9%

           Source: Institute of International Education

How does this study pattern compare to other countries?

India possesses the highest proportion of students enrolled in engineering, followed by Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Turkey, Pakistan and China. (See Table 2)  India also possesses the highest proportion of students enrolled in math/computer science, followed by Nepal, China, Pakistan and Turkey. It is important to remember that India and China send many more students to the United States than those other countries, which means there is a high concentration of Indians, as well as Chinese, in U.S. graduate programs in both engineering and math/computer science.

For students from many other countries studying in America to earn a degree in business/management is a higher relative priority. While 15 percent of Indian students in 2009/10 enrolled in business/management, 24 percent of students from China did so, as did approximately 25 percent of students from Taiwan, Germany and Pakistan. Nearly 40 percent of students from Vietnam are here to study business/management.

Table 2

                              Percentage of International Students By Country in U.S. Engineering Programs: 2009/2010

Country Percentage Enrolled in Engineering
India 38.8%
Malaysia 28.4%
Saudi Arabia 24.0%
Nigeria 23.6%
Turkey 23.3%
Pakistan 23.2%
China 20.2%

                                                     Source: Institute of International Education

Table 3

                      Percentage of International Students By Country in U.S. Math/Comp. Sci. Programs: 2009/2010

Country Percentage Enrolled in Math/Computer Science
India 19.8%
Nepal 11.7%
China 10.7%
Pakistan 10.7%
Turkey 10.0%

                                                     Source: Institute of International Education


The number of Indian students enrolled at U.S. universities nearly doubled in the last decade and has tripled since 1995. The data show Indians are taking advantage of American universities’ comparative advantage in the fields of engineering, math/computer science and business/management. Examining the fields of study shows Indians have increasingly seen an American degree in these fields as the ticket to success.

Addressing the Arguments Against Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Indian-Americans know that for the past several years failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation has blocked other changes to U.S. immigration law. Smaller, more targeted measures to fix problems associated with employment and family immigration, including reducing the large backlogs, have not see light of day to due to the inability to pass large-scale immigration legislation. Important measures on employer-sponsored green cards were part of a 2006 immigration reform bill that passed the Senate but failed to become law after opposition from House Republicans.

What are the main arguments against comprehensive immigration reform? And are there good responses to those arguments? I recently addressed the five main arguments offered against comprehensive immigration reform in a paper for the Cato Institute. (The study can be found here.)

1) Immigration Reform Will Not Harm Taxpayers. The paper notes that legalizing both the flow of workers and those already in the country without legal status will help taxpayers by raising the newly legalized workers’ earnings, productivity, and the likelihood they will pay taxes. Columbia University economist Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz found that illegal immigrants who received legal status under 1986 legislation received “significantly” higher wages once they became legal. (Higher wages equals higher taxes.) Peter Dixon and Maureen Rimmer, both with Monash University in Australia, found compared to more increases in border enforcement, using legal temporary workers to replace the flow of illegal immigrants would benefit U.S. households by $260 billion a year.

2) Newly Legalized workers will not burden the welfare rolls. In general, newly arriving immigrants are not heavy users of welfare and, in fact, are usually not eligible for federal means-tested programs. In 2006, according to the House Ways and Means Committee, only 0.7 percent of noncitizen used TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Much use of benefits declined for immigrants after eligibility rules changed in the 1996 welfare reform law, though even before the changes immigrant welfare use tended to be overstated. It’s true U.S.-born children of immigrants may receive more benefits than their immigrant parents. However, the comparisons of who is a net taxpayer can be misleading if one counts native-born children of immigrants as (immigration) costs when they are young but then fails to count them as tax contributors once they reach adulthood.

3) Another amnesty need not beget more amnesties. If Congress legalizes the status of individuals here unlawfully it does not need to be an amnesty, which usually requires little or no action on the part of the recipient. Instead, Congress can impose a series of conditions for that forgiveness, including fines and future obligations.

4) Legalizing or admitting less-skilled workers will not undermine U.S. culture or the English language. Immigrants and their children are learning English. A total of 91 percent of second-generation Hispanic immigrants (the children of immigrants) said they speak English “well” or “pretty well,” which rises to 97 percent by the third generation.

5) Allowing in more temporary visa holders or legalizing existing workers without legal status will not increase the unemployment rate. Immigrants help make Americans more productive, while having no impact on the unemployment rate. As economists like Mark J. Perry, a professor at the University of Michigan, Flint campus, point out, there is no fixed number of jobs, so there is no way for immigrants to “take away jobs from Americans.” There is no evidence unemployment rates rise over time at either the state or national level simply because additional people enter the labor force, whether immigrants or recent graduates from U.S. schools or colleges.


These are not popular arguments to make in a climate when economic recovery remains incomplete in America. And the strongest opponents of immigration reform will not likely be persuaded. However, those who support a better solution than the status quo will need to continue the debate and responding to critics. Otherwise, other problems, such as the need to add more green cards for skilled immigrants, may never be addressed in a Washington, D.C. that remains divided on immigration issues.

What’s Happening with H-1B Visas?

Press outlets are abuzz with stories signaling that H-1B visa numbers are down and, therefore, no longer held in favor by employers. Is that the case?

The key article, which has led to other press articles, was a May 6 Wall Street Journal piece entitled “Long-Prized Tech Visas for U.S. Entry Lose Cachet.” The story began, “A visa program designed to supply skilled foreign workers to companies in the U.S. has slowed sharply, attracting about 50% fewer petitions so far this year than last year, and 80% fewer than in 2009.” The article cites three possible factors: a mediocre U.S. economic recovery, increased opportunities for workers to stay or return to their home countries and higher visa fees against primarily Indian companies.

Because of the great demand for H-1B visas, in recent years, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has accepted H-1B applications for the next fiscal year on April 1, 6 months before new workers would be allowed to start work. That means current petitions filed by employers are for new H-1B visa holders to start work on October 1, 2011, which is the start of fiscal year 2012. (Fiscal year 2012 runs from October 1, 2011 to September 30, 2012.)

The argument that a major slowdown in hiring H-1Bs is taking place rests on the observation that in April 2010 over 16,000 petitions were filed and in April 2009 employers filed 45,000, according to USCIS. Moreover, back in 2008, employers filed enough petitions early on that the quota was reached in the first week filing petitions was permitted. Therefore, when compared to those earlier years, current numbers are down.

A Short History of the H-1B Quota

Congress did not “create” an H-1B visa program in 1990. Individuals had long been permitted to come into the United States on H-1 temporary visas to work in high skill jobs. Prior to 1990, going back to the 1950s, H-1s generally could not enter the United States if they intended to stay permanently.

Congress changed the law in 1990 to allow (explicitly) “dual intent,” which allowed H-1B visa holders to intend to become permanent residents (green card recipients), while also placing an annual limit of 65,000. Much of the debate over H-1Bs has centered on this annual cap.

By 1997, the 65,000 annual limit established by Congress in 1990 proved to be insufficient. Since 1997, employers have exhausted the supply of H-1B visas every year except during FY 2001 to FY 2003, when the ceiling was increased. In the past 9 years employers used up all the visas before or during the fiscal year. In 1998 and 2000 Congress passed short-term H-1B numerical increases that eventually expired.

In late 2004 Congress approved an exemption of 20,000 from the cap for recipients of an advanced degree from a U.S. university. In earlier legislation, Congress had approved an exemption from the numerical limit for those hired by universities and non-profit or government research institutes. With time Congress has revised the law it has come with greater regulation and, beginning in 1998, higher fees for hiring H-1B professionals.


Market Forces: Why the H-1B Quota is Still Likely to be Fully Utilized

If history is a guide, then it is likely the H-1B quota for FY 2012 will be exhausted before the end of the fiscal year. If we examine previous years it is easy to see how labor market conditions have determined the number of H-1B visas used in a year. As noted earlier, for FY 2002 and 2003, Congress temporarily increased the H-1B limit to 195,000. But as Table 1 shows, during those years employers used fewer than 80,000 visas that counted against the cap. That meant about 230,000 H-1B visas went unused in those two years.

In other words, companies did not decide to hire more individuals on H-1B visas during those years simply because the visas were available. And the same is happening today. Employers are analyzing how many people are needed in the United States to accomplish their objectives. In general, smart employers only hire as many people as necessary, since laying off people is costly, inefficient and bad for morale.

What does this mean for H-1B visas? It means that we are still early in the hiring cycle for the 2012 fiscal year, which does not start until October 1, several months from now. Two factors are necessary to keep in mind in projecting H-1B use. First, an H-1B is generally the only practical way to hire a skilled foreign national, including an international student, to work long-term in the United States. Second, the annual quota on H-1B – 65,000 plus the 20,000 exemption for those receiving a masters or higher from a U.S. university – remains low as a proportion of the U.S. labor force, less than one-tenth of one percent.

The fluctuations in H-1B use help demonstrate that employers hire individuals on H-1B visas when it is considered important for the business, not to replace Americans.


Table 1


Fiscal Year

Annual Limit*

H-1B Visas Unused