I was teary when I decided to write this piece. Now, after 20 minutes of squirming in my seat while staring at a blank screen, I’m not sure where to start. It’s an emotionally difficult situation to explain.

Let me try. I’m Indian. I work in Silicon Valley. I’m authorised to work in the US on an H-1B visa, which allows foreign workers to be temporarily employed by US firms. As per the regular process, you need to visit a US consulate – ideally in your home country – to have your visa stamped on to your passport.

Now the trouble is, the US consulates in India, and indeed most parts of the world, have not been fully operational since the onset of the pandemic. As a result, I’m in this odd situation where I can’t re-enter the US if I were to leave. Turns out I’m among at least tens of thousands.

Significant impact

So what’s the big deal with not being able to get your passport stamped? It doesn’t hamper your ability to continue working. But you can’t leave the US knowing you’ll be able to return. One, it stands to impact your employment and your career. This could mean missing on a work assignment or meeting your family.

Two, it impacts your school- or college-going children. If you live on rent, you’ll need to ask your friends to help dispose of your stuff. If you own a place, you’ll need very kind friends.

The website to get a consular appointment deserves a special mention. Nobody should have to go through it, so let me paint a picture: imagine the frustration of getting vaccine appointments online. Now combine it with a buggy website from the dial-up internet days. This feels far, far worse.

Try logging in more than four times a day, and it blocks you for 72 hours. Fortunately I’ve found succour in hyperactive Facebook groups, subreddits and Telegram channels. Each of them are full of frustrated and helpful people sharing minute-by-minute updates, tips and their anguish.

“Try at midnight.” “Slots open in the 15th minute of every hour.” “Don’t log in too often, or you’ll get locked out.” “Only share appointment availability updates on this group, for questions use the other group.” “I can see there’s an appointment, but when I click it, nothing happens.” It’s both disarming and pitiable to see so many people, all well-educated, come together to decode a system that rules their lives.

Going through the whole festive season – from Diwali to Christmas – without your family can feel gloomy, even heartbreaking. It feels worse when everyone around you in the US enjoys the extended holidays with their loved ones. Every work conversation begins with people discussing their plans.

Unempathetic system

This morning, my father told me his orthopedic surgeon said his spinal condition has worsened. The orthoped is one of the four other specialists he sees, each situation worse than the other. I couldn’t see him last year, but we had the pandemic to blame. This year, I fault a lethargic, arbitrary, bureaucratic, and demonstrably unempathetic system.

Some have missed important family events, others have delayed big life moments. There are those who’ve been separated from their immediate families. This situation has gripped my life in a way I never expected. It’s a topic of conversation in every social interaction, and nobody seems to understand why the process requires you to leave the US to stamp a visa that’s actually been approved already. Surely there’s a more humane way to solve this problem.

I know people who have paid hefty non-refundable fees for appointments in Canada in 2023. Yes, 2023.

Earlier this week, more consular appointments opened up in India. I woke up to a WhatsApp message from a neighbour (the benefits of sharing your story with everyone) who managed to get one in Delhi. Notifications from the Telegram group were blowing up my phone. I managed to get an appointment for 2022, and booked air tickets immediately. But I’ve read so many posts of last-minute consular cancellations, I can’t smile just yet. The mismatch in demand and supply feels so grave, I’m not sure we’ll be out of this situation for a very long time.

The American media pieces together insightful stories on the Indian CEO phenomenon, but it hasn’t found a compelling narrative to put the spotlight on the travails of documented immigration. As a result, there’s little administrative attention being paid to this problem, and therefore I remain pessimistic.

Many wonder what’s the lure of the US – a country that refers to us as “resident aliens” – that stops Indians from putting an end to this misery and packing their bags to return permanently. I’ll admit, I see their point. And yet I’ve got my fingers crossed as I count days for that appointment. This unending dilemma is perhaps as logical as the system we are battling.

The writer of this article, awaiting the issuance of a visa, has requested anonymity.