If U.S President Barack Obama’s proclamations in his Inauguration and State of the Union speeches are anything to go by, the biggest battles on immigration policy reform are yet to come. Similar to the torrid history of health care reform, a rock against which many a past U.S. President threw himself and failed, will the 44th President be the sole champion who pushes through comprehensive immigration reform (CIR)?

On Mr. Obama’s prospects of striking a meaningful bargain with a truculent Congress hangs the fate of millions of undocumented workers facing the prospect of deportation and also of legal would-be immigrants to the U.S. stuck in a morass of bureaucratic backlogs and bungling.

On the dexterity with which he manoeuvres conservatives away from overemphasising border-policing issues towards a deeper understanding of America’s need for a steady flow of immigrant labour hangs the very fate of the system.

Whatever emerges in 2016 from the ashes of this battle, there are few countries that will stand to win or lose more over the coming years than India. Along with Mexico and China, India ranks among the top nations that are a source of migration into the U.S. It has not only a sizeable number of permanent and temporary migrants in the U.S. but also a rather considerable undocumented immigrant population.

Yet unlike Mexico, whose citizens comprise the source of largest, undocumented immigrant inflows into the U.S., Indian immigrants tend to be more legal than illegal and more temporary than permanent.

With India being a magnet for criticism for allegedly outsourcing and purloining U.S. jobs and also for allegedly engaging in visa fraud, it is worth looking more closely at some of the data undergirding the true position of Indian immigrants on U.S. soil.

Visa category data

Data in the SICREMI report on International Migration in the Americas released by the Organisation of American States and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in recent weeks, show why the H1-B “speciality occupations” work visa category draws as much attention in the Indian context as it does — as a recipient of these visas the nation ranks first by a wide margin.

In 2011, 1,47,290 Indians were given H1-Bs whereas the number of Mexicans and Chinese obtaining this visa was 37,575 and 23,705 respectively, according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) figures. Similarly in the L-1 or “intra-company transferees” category, India’s 64,482 visas granted outranked Mexico’s 62,155 by a sliver and China’s 10,001 by much more

Within the broader, total category of temporary workers, which includes a range of other visas such as H2A, H2B, H2R, O1, O2, P1 to P3, E1 to E3 and a catch-all “Others” group, India lagged far behind Mexico. While the total number of temporary Indian workers admitted into the U.S. in 2011 was 3,18,955, Mexico had 6,99,933 workers enter. Chinese temporary immigrants, however, were only 48,912.

Further if permanent legal residents into the U.S are considered, the SICREMI data indicate that India only came third after Mexico and China in 2011. Mexican immigrants receiving legal permanent status in the U.S. that year numbered 1,39,120, Chinese numbered 70,863 and Indians a little behind them at 69,162.

Behind the labels

India would do well to persistently jog American public memory on these facts in the years ahead, even as the Obama White House steams forward with its variegated efforts to bring jobs that supposedly fled the U.S. Too often demeaning and misleading labels such as “chop-shop” have been tacked onto Indian firms including high-profile IT-sector operators such as Infosys, scapegoats for a much deeper malaise in high-cost U.S. industries and labour.

Worryingly, the man behind that particular jibe, New York’s Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, is also in the ‘gang of eight’ tasked with pulling together an outline of principles this year, for the planned immigration overhaul. Working with him on this worthy venture is former Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain, who hails from Arizona, a state that has adopted arguably the harshest anti-immigrant policy measures in this history of this nation.

However, this apparently hawkish group may not have the last word on the CIR package. The last time the U.S. Congress succeeded in passing a CIR bill, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, there appeared to be a large gap between what the bill-makers intended and its final effects.

Although that particular Bill “was intended to hold back a growing tide of illegal immigration into the U.S... [it] did nothing of the sort,” argued Foreign Affairs magazine earlier this month, adding, “Indeed, rarely has a piece of congressional legislation failed as spectacularly as did the 1986 bill.”

While stemming illegal immigration continues to be a focus of Obama 2.0, the President has sent high-visibility signals that he views immigration as more than an unwanted, if powerful, force that deprives legitimate American job seekers of their economic prospects.

Even in the sensitive political election year of 2012 Mr. Obama did not baulk at passing an executive action to allow up to 8,00,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to remain in the country without fear of deportation and to be able to work too.

On border crossings

More than anything then, Mr. Obama’s approach to CIR and the extent to which his administration is able to carry Congress along with it will matter decisively to the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., of which close to 2,40,000 are Indians according to an estimate by the DHS.

More Indians enter the U.S. without proper documentation than the public discourse, which is focused almost exclusively on migrants from Mexico and Latin America, would suggest.

While the DHS estimates indicate that in 2009 roughly two per cent of all unauthorised immigrants in the U.S. came from India, the total number of these immigrants rose by a staggering 94 per cent between 2000 and 2011. India was the seventh largest source of illegal immigrants into the U.S. globally. According to Foreign Affairs “the fastest growth in the number of illegal migrants today is from Honduras, Guatemala, and India.”

In a fascinating account on dangerous border crossings ProPublica journalist Sebastian Rotella described the 2011 case of Mexican authorities in Chiapas who discovered “two tractor-trailers carrying a total of 500 Central Americans, Indians and Chinese who had just crossed the Guatemalan border.”

In another story that Mr. Rotella tracked, Mexican immigration investigators disrupted a smuggling ring in 2011 “after arresting three frightened Indians at the Tapachula airport... The Indians carried seemingly legitimate visas for Mexico but admitted their intent to sneak into the U.S.,” he explained.

Similarly, an Indian couple, Nareshkumar and Urmilaben Patel told ProPublica that “everything was arranged before their departure,” and they followed a complex route of travel — likely to evade detection by authorities — including Delhi, Dubai, Amman, Madrid, Guatemala City and then finally across the Suchiate River by raft, where “a Mexican lawyer gave them documents and told them to pose as tourists” entering the U.S.

These desperate lives of undocumented immigrants — some Indians were said to have paid up to $25,000 in advance for their crossing — are easily shattered by a rough, callous U.S. border police. Meanwhile, untold numbers of those who have sought the legal route to immigration waste frustrating years trapped in dead ends of arduous paperwork requirements.

Given the unequal nature of the system, it would restore faith in the U.S. as a true socio-economic “melting pot” if Mr. Obama’s CIR cloaked the iron fist of border enforcement in the velvet glove of humane treatment of the vulnerable.

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