US President Donald Trump’s decision in June to suspend a number of work visas until the end of the year, including the highly sought-after H-1B, has earned him condemnation from business leaders who rely on foreign workers for key positions and from experts who believe it will end up harming the American economy.
But zoom in past the big-picture analyses and the fallout of Trump’s decision is playing out in terms of lives upended and families kept apart because of the new rules and the uncertainty they brought.
“It’s been four months now. I am still waiting to be with my children,” said Poorva Dixit, an H-1B visa holder who has been living in the US for 14 years. Dixit had planned to make a short trip to India in March to be by her mother’s side through a high-risk medical procedure.
At the time, her two daughters and husband decided to stay back due to the rising fears of the coronavirus pandemic. But not long after Dixit arrived in India, the country – and the US consulate – went into lockdown, preventing her from getting the requisite stamp on her visa to return.
“My mother did not survive the surgery and passed away on June 24. After finishing her last rites, I began communicating with the embassy officials and senators back in the US but got no concrete reply to when the offices would reopen... [and then] we received the devastating news of President Trump’s executive order,” Dixit said.
Without a stamped visa, even those who have otherwise valid travel documents cannot return to the US, which means Dixit has no idea when she will be allowed to go home.
Dixit is struggling to explain the intricacies of the visa rules to her three-year-old and six-year-old daughters.
“Even adults don’t understand the immigration laws completely until and unless we are faced with them, how will a three-year-old and a six-year-old understand? I spend at least 4-6 hours everyday talking to them, but my younger daughter has now started refusing to talk to me unless I go back,” she said.
Bloomberg, citing an immigration expert, reported last week that as many as 375,000 temporary visa holders and green card applicants will now be unable to enter the US until next year – assuming the restrictions are relaxed then.
Considering that more than 70% of H-1B visas over the last five years went to Indian citizens, it is evident that a significant number of them are stuck in India with no sense of when they will be able to return.
For many, the uncertainty began soon after Trump came to power, with once routine paperwork becoming a cumbersome affair, as the US president promised to reduce the number of foreigners working in the country. Since then, the combination of the global Covid-19 lockdown and then Trump’s visa ban until the year have only made things worse.
New Jersey-resident Tarun has been living in the US for the past 11 years and had even bought a home there, after he was able to qualify for a loan.
“I travelled to India in March after my father passed away following a medical emergency,” he said. “My H-1B visa had expired in December, and I was hopeful of getting an appointment in the US consulate for its renewal, but then the lockdown happened.”
Tarun’s wife, also an H-1B visa holder, is currently in the US handling her own job and taking care of their two children all by herself. While he hasn’t lost his job, he does not know when he will be able to return home to his family.
Amandeep Singh, a network engineer who lives in New Jersey, travelled to his hometown in Goa, India, in December 2019 to be around for his grandmother’s 90th birthday. He has been stranded in the country since.
“I needed to get my visa stamped to travel back to the US, which was supposed to be a straightforward process. It has now been seven months since I have been trying to go back to my wife and my three-year-old son without any success,” Singh said.
Singh said that the US consulate in India has been unresponsive in his case since January 2020. They initially asked for more detailed documentation, but have not responded to his repeated emails and requests since then.
“I had planned on going back in two-three weeks but there has been no response from the US embassy, even before it was shut in March due to the pandemic,” he said. “After the pandemic hit, I lost my job in the US. The company I was working for has also shut down for now, but other employees are eligible for compensation from the US government. [Now] I don’t have a job and I am not getting compensation because I am not physically present on US soil. How long will I survive on my savings?”
Singh has been in touch with his employer who wants him to join back eventually once the company is operational, but he is also aware that he is losing precious visa validity period while being stranded in India. His H-1B visa is set to expire in October 2021.
Singh also complained about a lack of clear communication from the US authorities. “All the information that we get comes through the news. We are supposed to watch television and guess what our life will be like.”