US may reduce access to business visa programme

US may reduce access to business visa programme

New Delhi: The US government is poised to temporarily reduce access to its fast-track programme for business visas. That could make it difficult for such companies, mostly information technology (IT) firms, to send employees to the US on the expedited visas.

Speaking to Mint, counselling minister of consular affairs James Herman at the US embassy in Delhi said that the government would be suspending more companies from participating in the Business Executive Program (BEP), which expedites temporary work visas for employees.

It has removed almost 200 companies from the programme.

To be sure, as Herman clarified, removal from the list would not necessarily imply that companies have undertaken fraudulent activities.

The programme expedites issuance of temporary work visas for companies that send large number of employees to the US each year.

The $60 billion (Rs2.7 trillion) Indian software services export industry, which derives two-thirds of its revenue from the US, depends on this programme to a large extent to send professionals to the country for projects.

This comes even as the industry has seen immigration regulations being tightened over the last several months, with rejection rates going up along with a fee hike last year that has significantly increased the cost of work visas for the US.

Recently, the US consulate suspended five large companies from the programme after it detected “irregularities" in their visa applications.

On Tuesday, Business Standard reported that HCL Technologies Ltd and Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. are among the five companies that have been suspended from the programme, apart from Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS).

However, unlike the latter, HCL and Cognizant have not been reinstated in the programme.

Mint could not independently verify this. HCL said that it does not want to comment on market speculation.

A Cognizant spokesperson said that the company does not comment on immigration matters.

TCS declined to comment. “TCS participates in the BEP...and has no further comment on the subject," a spokesperson said in an email.

According to Herman, “Not all five have been reinstated, and we’ll be suspending more." He says, “It’s an ongoing process."

Ameet Nivsarkar, vice-president of IT lobby group Nasscom, said that he is “not aware of the development", and added that “the BEP programme is like a frequent flyer programme for airlines". He said that companies who are large users of the visas and qualify for the programme can get their work done in an express manner, which is helpful for them.

To qualify, companies must send a minimum of 50 employees per year to the US, and must rigorously follow immigration laws and procedures.

Consular officials have recently reduced membership to BEP from more than 500 companies to approximately 300.

According to Herman, this was done as the programme was getting too large to manage.

However, he emphasized that in the vast majority of cases, the companies “hadn’t done anything wrong".

“I believe in setting standards and if people don’t meet them, you don’t tolerate that," said Herman.

“You’re a professional company, we’ve set these standards. If you haven’t met them, you don’t need to be a part of the programme," he pointed out.

Explaining the action, Herman said, “The companies hadn’t necessarily done anything wrong, but the programme had grown too large to manage. So now we’re trying to recreate trust with member companies, and as soon as we do, we’ll expand to other companies again."

Some of the common “misunderstandings" detected by consular officials include workers who are sent on business visas for training and are subsequently asked to do “work" on site not permitted on the visa.

In an effort to educate companies about visa use and misuse, the US consulate will set up several meetings with BEP companies in the next six months, Herman said.