NEW DELHI - Christopher Columbus, who thought he had discovered India when he ran into North America sailing for a new spice route, might be even more convinced these days, with Indians set to become the largest segment of foreign workers and second-largest number of students seeking visas for the United States.
In a year in which immigration polices are stormily featuring in the debate for the November elections, United States President Barack Obama appears singing a different visa tune from when assumed office four years ago. India had the highest American visa rejection rates in the world in 2009, a year after Obama became president, according to a US immigration report this month. Visa rejections for Indians rocketed up eight-fold to 22.5% of applications from 2.8% the previous year.
On January 19, Obama ordered a streamlining of the visa process to increase travel to the US from countries like China, India and
Brazil, in what might well be the largest peacetime movement of people in human history, between the world's two largest democracies and the world's most populated country.
"The number of travelers from emerging economies with growing middle classes - such as China, Brazil, and India - is projected to grow by 135%, 274%, and 50% respectively by 2016 when compared to 2010," James W Herman, the Minister-Counselor for US Consular Affairs in New Delhi, informed Asia Times Online. Visa applications from India are projected to increase at 14% year-on-year until 2020, he said.
Herman said India has the highest number of business visas to the US issues worldwide, and is placed second for student visas. He expects that each year until 2020, US consulates in India will process 2.1 million visa applications - over twice the population of a small country like Bhutan.
Whatever the distant past, the present widening of doors has raised the hackles of Republicans. The US Congress is scheduled this month to investigate allegations that immigration officers are being pressurized to speed-up visa applications without due regard for fraud and security.
The probe follows the US Department of Homeland Security issuing a 40-page report, later leaked to the public, alleging that 25% of immigration officers said they had been urged to approve dubious visa cases. One officer was even demoted for rejecting too many applications. But a spokesperson for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service denied any such goings-on.
Visa quotas are blistering the presidential election year - a legacy that could perhaps be blamed on the Iranians. A certain Persian king Artaxerxes I (464-425 BC) of Achaemenis dynasty is said to have issued the world's first ever visa or passport, circa 450 BC. He gave a letter to a court official granting him safe passage to lands "beyond the river". He thus started the history of visa woes and American immigration headaches - and perhaps gifted habitual Iran-bashers in the US some more ammunition.
The Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) said Obama's presidential executive order on visas encourages "terrorism and visa overstays". Relaxed visa norms threaten "the integrity of [the American] immigration system", blasted Lamar Smith, US congressman from Texas who chairs the House Committee on the Judiciary. "It's outrageous that administration officials would compromise national security for their own political agenda and gain."
More trouble erupted with allegedly increasing H-1B visa fraud, with the Eastern District Court of Texas issuing a subpoena to leading Indian software firm Infosys last May for alleged misuse of work visas. In 2011, nearly 700,000 US visa applications were processed in India and a record 67,105 H-1B work visas were issued, mostly to software professionals.
India accounts for nearly 65% of the H-1B visa applications US embassies receive worldwide, but Indian trade associations complain that is not enough. The US embassy in New Delhi has even set up a special department to deal with H-1B visa woes.
But while H-1B visa workers are suspected of stealing American jobs, other travelers from India, China and Brazil are welcomed as job creators. The US State Department estimates that every additional 65 visitors leads to one more tourism-related job in the US. Doubling arrivals from China, India and Brazil would support over 200,000 jobs, according to the Washington-based US Travel Association.
Popular US Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana endeared herself even more with the US travel fraternity in 2011 when she ardently pushed for conducting tourist visa interviews through secure, remote video-conferencing technology.
Regular consular access itself can be a nightmare in vast countries such as India, China and Brazil. Entire families and tour groups have to sometimes travel thousands of kilometers to the nearest US consulate just to apply for a visa.
China, with over 450 cities each with over 1.5 million people, has only five cities - in Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu - with a US consulate offering tour group visa interviews. India has four US consulates - in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. The video conferencing move if implemented to could increase millions more visitors from India, China and Brazil.
Currently, Japan, South Korea and Singapore are the only three Asian countries among 36 nations whose citizens do not need a paper visa to stay in the US for a period of 90 days. But given the desperation of some folks in this part of the world to get to the US, it's not quite likely that Indian and Chinese travelers can in the near future land at New York's JFK airport without the US visa stamp. Even a simple tourist visa may not always appear straightforward, according to some interview experiences .
China saw an even bigger demand to travel to the US, with over one million visa applications in 2011, a 34% increase over 2010. Nearly 260,000 visas were processed in the first quarter of fiscal year 2012, compared to 175,000 visas in 2011. Visa interview waiting times in China have shrunk to just two days at the five US visa-processing consulates.
Expanding infrastructure to cope with the visa rush can brew a controversy or two, as when the US consulate in Mumbai shifted address last November. Its longtime premises Lincoln House in Breach Candy, South Mumbai, was palace of Maharaja Wankaner Pratapsinhji, king of Wankaner, a small Western Indian princely state until 1947.
The palace occupying 8,345 square meters of prime Mumbai real estate was given on a 999-year lease to the US government for 1.8 million rupees (US$36,000) in 1957. A political ruckus may erupt if the US government tries selling it - and possibly violates Indian laws of property ownership for foreigners.
The US consulate had not much choice but to move address in Mumbai. If Maharaja Pratapsinhji applied for a US visa circa 2011, he might be playing mobile phone games all day and night outside the US consulate in queues sometimes over 3,000 people. Local residents complained.
The Maharaja's descendants, having no surviving lease documents, say they will not challenge any American sale of their ancestral property. "I look at it as one of the biggest donations an Indian citizen may have made to the world's richest nation," a descendant Digvijaysinh Jhal resignedly told the Indian Express last November. The "donation" is worth about 18 billion rupees (US$361 million) in current real estate prices. The US though has still a bit of time to decide Lincoln House's future - until the year 2956.
The less royal, more spacious new American consulate in suburban Mumbai has 44 visa counters and two large waiting halls to seat 2,000 visa applicants at a time. US Embassy staffing overall across India has in fact increased by whopping 60% in 2011. But it still may not be enough to cope with Asia's rush to America, and consequent chain of events.