George Bush's visit to India this week provides the perfect high-profile opportunity for the President to urge Congress to eliminate all numerical caps on H-1B foreign worker visas. Such a move would help the United States in a number of ways, while holding very little downside for the American economy.India-U.S. cooperation is at an all-time high on several fronts, but thorny issues remain in the areas of trade, nuclear proliferation, and regional security. An offer to eliminate the H-1B cap--currently at about 60,000 workers per year--could extract some welcome quid pro quos from the government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
India benefits greatly from the H-1B program and would love to see it expand. Through the program, its graduates gain invaluable experience working with U.S.-based IT teams at some of the world's best-run companies. As India's own IT sector grows, more and more of these workers are returning home to share that knowledge with their countrymen and to start wealth-generating businesses of their own.
Elimination of the H-1B cap would also benefit the United States. There's mounting evidence that this country is facing a shortage of skilled IT workers--a shortage that will only get worse as boomer tech professionals retire. A study released last week by the Association for Computing Machinery notes that "more IT jobs are available today in the U.S. than at the height of the dot-com boom."
If Bush offers to help kill the cap, what should he insist on in return? There are a number of areas where India could make concessions that would provide real benefits to the United States. Much of India remains desperately poor, but its middle class is about the size of the entire U.S. population--300 million. That's a significant market for U.S.-made goods and services. India needs to reduce tariff and nontariff barriers that limit access to this market in lucrative sectors like agriculture and financial services.
The United States also needs India to fall closer into line with the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Presently, India makes little distinction between its civilian and military nuclear programs and has blocked international oversight of its atomic technology.
Some movement by India on this issue would help ease tensions on the subcontinent. It would also give the United States more leverage in its efforts to compel Iran to open its nuclear program to inspection. Also on the security front, India needs to pledge to better manage its relations with neighboring Pakistan to ensure cross-border cooperation in fighting the war on terror in a region infested with al-Qaida operatives.
Opening our own borders to more Indian IT workers as a trade concession could help the United States realize at least some of these benefits. What's there to lose?