India Inc. gets White House meeting on H-1B visas

Head of business delegation from India said to describe session with Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers as 'positive'

A delegation from one of India's largest business groups visited Washington last week to make a case for the H-1B visa program, among other political topics. And it was a group with enough clout to meet with top White House officials.

The meeting likely would have gone unnoticed had it not been for reports in the Indian news media. Heading the delegation was Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman and CEO of Bharti Enterprises Ltd., India's largest mobile phone operator. The U.S. officials at the meeting included Lawrence Summers, director of the National Economic Council (NEC) and assistant to President Obama for economic policy.

In India, H-1B visas are seen as critical to that country's IT services industry. The four largest visa recipients during the federal government's 2008 fiscal year are all India-based services firms. After an earlier visit to the U.S., officials from India's top IT trade group, the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom), called the H-1B hiring restrictions set by Congress on financial services firms that receive federal bailout funds an issue of "extreme concern."

In last week's visit, Mittal was representing the Confederation of Indian Industry, whose affiliate members include Nasscom. According to the Indian press reports about the trip, Mittal characterized the delegation's meeting with Summers as "positive."

The Obama administration has yet to outline its plans for the H-1B program, but the White House has given some signals that it might support an increase in the annual visa cap — primarily via the appointment of officials who have advocated cap increases in the past, such as Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona and now secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

And in meeting with Summers, the delegation from India found itself with the White House organization that may be most likely to support an H-1B increase. One of the NEC's deputy directors is Diana Farrell, an Obama appointee who has been a strong supporter of offshore outsourcing. Prior to taking her job at the NEC, Farrell was a director at management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which has argued in reports — some authored by Farrell — that offshore outsourcing creates savings that are reinvested by companies.

When Obama was a U.S. senator, he supported a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was proposed in 2007 but never voted on after its sponsors failed to get enough support for a procedural motion to end debate. That bill would have raised the annual H-1B cap from 65,000 regular visas to as many as 180,000, while also authorizing additional visas for foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. universities beyond the 20,000 that currently can be issued each year. Since 2007, Obama has continued to urge support for comprehensive immigration reform, but without being specific on the issue of raising the H-1B cap.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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