Indian Expats Are Leaving SoCal To Find A Better Life — In India

Mani Karthik in his home office, in Kochi. He and his family moved back to South India in 2017. (Aaron Schrank/KPCC)

For decades, California has been a land of opportunity for Indian workers seeking technology jobs, but in recent years, restrictive U.S. immigration policies and economic growth back home have caused many Indian expats to move back to India seeking a better life.

Meet Mani Karthik. He's a digital marketer from South India who moved to Irvine in 2013 with his wife and young son. Four years later, they moved back to Kochi —an Indian port city in the southern state of Kerala.

Karthik's decision to return to Kochi came in the wake of attacks on Indian American immigrants in Seattle, Kansas and Northern California.

"The trigger was the concerning news happening around us, and the political change," Karthik said. "Hearing such things kind of makes you think, 'What are we doing here? Do we belong here? Is it safe to be here?'"

Like most Indian immigrants in the U.S., Karthik was here on a temporary visa for foreign workers in speciality occupations called the H-1B. Karthik's employers had filed to sponsor his green card, which would have granted him permanent residency, but after waiting and waiting, his green card never came.

"You don't know how long that wait is going to be. There's a lot of uncertainty there," Karthik said.

Currently, the U.S. State Department advises that wait times for green cards for high-skilled Indian workers are upwards of 10 years.

Those long green card wait times are among several factors prompting some Indian skilled workers to leave California and move back to India. Also driving the shift: an uptick in H-1B visa denials and delays, anti-immigrant sentiment circulating in the U.S. and improving job prospects in India — especially in the country's booming tech sector.


BACK TO INDIA

Karthik is also the creator of BackToIndia.com, a website inspired by the surge of Indians returning from jobs in the U.S. The website is a step-by-step guide for Indians living abroad looking to return home. "There was a lot of information online, but it was either outdated or all over the place," Karthik said. "I wanted to bring it all into one place, to create a checklist that people can refer to, people who want to move back."

Mani Karthik shows off his website, BackToIndia.com, which helps Indians in the diaspora move back to their homeland. (Aaron Schrank/KPCC)


The website, launched shortly after Karthik's 2017 move back to Kochi, has spurred an online community with thousands of members. In closed groups on Facebook and Whatsapp, they trade advice on how to ship their belongings, find jobs and help their kids cope with culture shock.

A REVERSE BRAIN DRAIN?

Skilled workers returning to India in large numbers is a stark contrast to labor trends of past decades.

Carnegie Mellon University engineering professor Vivek Wadhwa moved to the U.S. from India in the 1980s. He said at the time, he and his peers could put down roots. They had success starting companies or rising through the ranks.

"Parents would cry when their children would leave [India] because that means they would not see them again," said Wadhwa, who researches skilled immigrants leaving the U.S. "They would not come back. Then, everything began to change because of U.S. immigration policies."

In 1990, Congress created the H-1B visa, amid a boom in the American IT sector. By the early 2000s, Wadhwa said Indians were seen as a threat to American tech jobs. New restrictions added to a backlog for green cards.

Currently, three-quarters of H-1B visa recipients in the U.S. are from India. Most are trying to get their employers to sponsor them for green cards, or permanent residency. But there are only 140,000 employment-based green cards issued per year, and the federal government says no one country can get more than 7 percent of them.

So Indians are stuck in limbo longer than most.

Wadhwa explored this trend in his 2012 book, "The Immigrant Exodus," in which he warned that restrictive U.S. visa policies would spur innovation in India and China.

"The tide has turned," Wadhwa said. "It's a reverse brain drain at a very fast pace that's happening, and the United States lost a big strategic advantage it had."

Canada is also on the hunt for high-skilled labor.

For families who want to remain in North America and spend less time waiting for permanent residency, Canada has streamlined the process for highly-skilled workers with strong English or French language skills to immigrate. The country's "express entry program" is ramping up and could accept H-1B's leaving the U.S.

It's a shift that's prevalent in engineering classes at Carnegie Mellon, according to Wadhwa, where the majority of his students are Indian or Chinese.

"The default now for top engineering students is to go back home," Wadhwa said.

The number of Indians in the U.S. looking for jobs back in India grew from 600 at the end of 2016 to 7,000 in March of 2017, according to analysis by consulting firm Deloitte.

In the 2017-2018 school year, there was an 8.8 percent drop from the prior year in the number of graduate and professional students from India enrolled in U.S. universities, according to the Institute of International Education's annual survey.

VISA GAMBLE

It's not just the green card backlog. The U.S. immigration system leaves Indian-born workers and their families with a cluster of uncertainties that make it difficult to plan a future in California.

"I love this place, but I'm worried about the visa issues," said Rashmi Pradhan, an IT worker living in the Los Angeles neighborhood Woodland Hills.

Those uncertainties have only grown since President Trump took office.

Trump issued his "Buy American, Hire American" executive order in April 2017. Months later, federal immigration officials began increasing the rate of H-1B visa denials, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data.

Then, last June, USCIS announced another new policy signalling a crackdown on highly-skilled immigrant workers. Now, if you're a non-citizen who tries to extend your visa or apply for a green card and you're denied, you can be placed into deportation proceedings.

Plus, most spouses of skilled immigrant workers are unable to work in the United States, because they are on H4 visas for dependents. Pradhan's wife Manisha has a doctoral degree in organic chemistry, but no work authorization in Southern California.

"That makes me think 'okay, let's go back ... and we can both have a career," Pradhan said.

In 2015, President Obama issued an executive order giving work authorization to some spouses, if the were married to someone with an H-1B visa who had begun the green card process to become a lawful permanent resident.

That didn't help Pradhan's wife, but it did allow tens of thousands of immigrant spouses, many Indian-born, to begin working. Then, last month, the Department of Homeland Security proposed undoing Obama's 2015 order, which would strip them of work authorization.

Pradhan, who works for an IT services firm called Cognizant, and his wife have already decided to move back to India — in part due to the uncertainty of their future work prospects in the U.S.. They've purchased an apartment in Hyderabad, the capital of India's southern state of Telangana.

"It's easy to switch jobs in Hyderabad, but not here in Los Angeles," Pradhan said.

They hope to relocate in December, but it might happen sooner. Pradhan's H-1B visa is only good until June. He applied for an extension, but doesn't know whether it'll come.

OPPORTUNITY IN INDIA

Last year, Udit Patidar lived in San Francisco and was a product manager at Intel. Then he moved to Hyderabad and founded a waste management startup.

At an in-person meetup for Mani Karthik's 'Back to India' community, held in the heart of Hyderabad's bustling IT corridor, Patidar told the small group that he always felt comfortable as an Indian-American before the U.S. 2016 presidential election. He even had secured a green card.

"The morning after Trump had won, that was the first and only time I ever felt a little bit self-conscious," Patidar said. "I went into a cafe to get croissants or whatever and felt that people are looking at me for whatever reason. You have some eyes on you."

Experiences like that were just one factor for Patidar. He and the others at the meetup said they were lured by job prospects in the city's tech industry. Microsoft built its largest campus outside of Seattle in the city in 2004. More recently, Google, Facebook and other big names have moved in.

Vinay Goli and Sudheer Bandaru both recently moved from California to Hyderabad. They participated in the first in-person meetup for the 'Back to India' community. (Aaron Schrank/KPCC)

As the economy in India changes, so do the views of locals living there. About two-thirds of Indians say the financial situation of average people in India is better than it was 20 years ago, according to a recent Pew survey.

"Nothing is better than living in California, especially the Bay Area," said Vinay Goli, 30, who moved back to Hyderabad last year after nine years in the U.S. "I definitely miss California. But I'm happy with where I am today here."

So are Mani Karthik and family.

Karthik is an entrepreneur now, pursuing projects from his home office in Kochi that his U.S. work visa wouldn't allow. His wife Dhanya couldn't legally work in the U.S., but now runs an online boutique selling women's clothing.

Karthik misses a lot of things about Southern California - the weather, big box stores, Mexican food, In-N-Out Burger, but said he has no desire to move back.

Karthink's 11-year-old son Dhruvan, however, said he's planning to move back to Irvine someday. His parents said, maybe, if he studies well, he can come back for college.