Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal , who represents Washington’s 7th District, says India’s strength is in its religious tolerance and the country needs to do everything possible to maintain that. In an interview, Ms. Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman elected to the House of Representatives, said that though India-US relations had improved in the past, there are many challenges ahead ,including issues related to foreign policy, immigration and H1B visa programme. Here are the edited excerpts :
Is there any special reason for your visit to Bengaluru?
It is a great honour to have had few meetings and opportunities to interact with some excellent business and political leaders in the community and to talk about what kind of things we might be able to do together (build ties) between Seattle, the city I represent, and Bengaluru. There is an IT centre here and in Seattle. My first visit to India as a Congresswoman was in April and that was a national visit. We came with a delegation, including leader of the Democratic delegation Nancy Pelosi and we met with the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi), Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad (Minister for Law & IT), that was obviously a national discussion. That was really about how to improve India-U.S relations.
How do you view the relations between the U.S and India?
I think over President Barack Obama’s tenure, the Indian-US relationship got much better than it has ever been. And I think both President Obama and Prime Minister Modi were working on continuing that. I do think that this (Trump) administration has many challenges and hasn’t yet figured out what the relationship is going to be. But Prime Minister Modi seemed to have a very good visit when he was there. There are very important political interests for India and the U.S in Afghanistan certainly.
I think there are some good statements made by the Trump administration recently about Pakistan, which affects the relationship with India. But I think it (India) is a big trading partner to the U.S and is a big potential market. The world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy are good partners to have together.
There are challenges in the U.S at our own end. There is no articulated foreign policy from the Trump administration. Many of the senior positions have yet to be filled. The Trump administration has proposed massive cuts to the State Department. All of these things affect our ability to interact with purpose with different countries, including India. And of course, the internal conflicts we have with immigration affect the ability for Indian workers to work, to come to the U.S affects the environment for the Indian-Americans who live in the U.S. On the other hand, the natural ties between India and U.S, the diaspora and the interests that are already established, let’s say in IT, research and development, aerospace, many of these areas, those exist. They are benefits to us, no matter what the governments are. The reality is we are going to continue pursuing those mutual interests.
Lately, there has been too much focus on immigration, your comments?
It is a huge issue for the U.S. It is an issue I worked on for 15 years and I am on the judiciary committee and the immigration issues come before the judiciary committee. What I believe we need to do is to comprehensively reform the immigration system, that includes H1Bs, but also includes agricultural workers, making sure we preserve our family system and making sure we are actually setting levels within immigration that reflect the needs of our country.
I believe immigration is a good thing for the U.S. I think most Americans believe that but unfortunately, we are in an environment now where this administration has been putting out a lot of anti-immigration messages, and so it is difficult to move good policy forward in that environment.
You have warned the government against hasty changes in the H1B visa regime. Do you see any major changes in future?
The problem is there are some changes needed for the H1Bs to prevent fraud and to make sure we are protecting the U.S workers. But for the most part, H1B visas have been very good for the U.S and for the countries that are getting those visas, for the workers who are coming. But I do think we need more when you have a visa within the first month the quota is taken up. Many companies are saying we will relocate to Canada instead of coming to the U.S, as we can’t bring our workers in. These are big issues.
The other issue with H1B is how quickly you could transition to permanent residency, that is not all of the H1Bs but a small portion of people who come to the U.S on H1B and decide to stay. In fact, that was my situation. I went on a student visa, then I was on H1B and then I became a permanent resident. We need to have a system that allows for all of these different needs of the economy and our communities but at the same time, we do need to make sure it makes sense for American workers as well. But I think that is completely possible, but just reacting against H1Bs and shutting down the programme or restricting the programme would do tremendous harm to the U.S economy in my view.
Is there going to be any negative impact on the Indian IT companies or attracting talent from India?
India is certainly a priority when it comes to where the visas go. Within the H1B programme, many of those visas in large majority go to India. It is one the largest countries that receive H1Bs. It is a priority for the Indian companies and the U.S companies as well, as Microsoft, Intel and all of these companies hire Indians through H1Bs. The problem is, it is very difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation on immigration going through the U.S congress right now. There are bipartisan bills in the both the House and the Senate but the environment is so negative towards the immigrants probably because of what the Trump administration has been doing that it becomes very difficult, politically, to move a bill through the legislative process.
In all likelihood we won’t see legislative changes to the H1B programme immediately, I would say in the near three-to- six-month term. But I also don’t think we will see a positive change to the programme in that near term. I do think we will see, potentially, some negative administrative actions, we already have seen a few, there might be some more. But I do hope by the next year, we will be able to move a more proactive positive immigration reform agenda.
Many lawmakers led by you have introduced a resolution urging President Trump to condemn hate groups. What has been the outcome of that?
There are two resolutions, one I introduced where up to 87 members have signed on to it and that one urges the President (Trump) to condemn white supremacists and hate groups. The second resolution is to censure the President, which essentially is a very strongly worded reprimand from the Congress to the President around his response to (the violence by hate groups in) Charlottesville . That resolution has 117 members of Congress in it, that was introduced with two of my colleagues. Both of those resolutions should be considered. Certainly, the censure resolution should be taken up by the House and Speaker Paul Ryan, though he has unfortunately said that he is not going to take it up.
But we are continuing to push and I think it is important that there is a formal reprimand of the President for the divisive way in which he addressed Charlottesville and continues to do that. It is not just a partition issue, every council he has set up all the members have resigned. His infrastructure council, business councils, CEOs have stepped away because they were condemning his response. It is important that Republicans and Democrats come together and say to the country that we do not tolerate white supremacists and we are disappointed at how the President responded to Charlottesville.
Are there any lessons for India?
One of the best things I love about my birth country is we have so many of the world’s great religions. I do believe that we need to do everything possible to maintain that tolerance for all of our religions. I am a Hindu by birth, but I have deep respect for Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, for all these different religions. It is a strength to India, that we always have been a place that while we had troubles and challenges but people in the leadership make it clear that it must remain that way.
Democratic processes in the U.S and France faced cyber attacks and the fake news was propagated on the social media to impact elections. Should India be concerned about cyber security and fake news, as it heads into next elections?
In the U.S, we have seen the impact of not investing in cyber security the way we need to. I have actually spoken to the people who have run election bureaus for the U.S. Many of them have said to me that we have to go back to paper ballots with the paper trail, even if we have an electronic voting system because there is no way to check if it is just electronic. And I think there is a need to make sure we are balancing the security challenges of technology with the tremendous convenience and expansion opportunities that the technology allows. I think every country should be thinking about that, given the events that have recently happened and the idea that our election systems could be hacked by foreign governments and that the foreign governments could actually influence the elections of one of the most powerful countries in the world is extremely disturbing and it is one of the top priorities for the Congress.
Though we haven’t taken it on because, again, the President of the U.S refuses to believe that something (like that) actually happened in the last elections. So we are certainly struggling with it. I am sure India is thinking about it just as France had to think about it. But it is extremely important to focus on making sure the elections are reflective of the democracy that is holding those elections and not of some foreign government that hacks.