Citing the rising unemployment rate in the United States amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to protect American jobs, US President Donald Trump recently announced a ban on employment-based visas – including the H-1B visa, a large proportion of which goes to Indian nationals – till the end of the year.

Indian-American immigration attorney and founder of the Murthy Law firm, Sheela Murthy, however, believes the move has had the exact opposite effect of taking away jobs and would, in turn, prevent the growth of the US economy. spoke to Murthy about the legality of the move, the hardships being faced by her Indian clients and what it is like to be an immigration lawyer in the time of Trump.

How have your clients been impacted by Donald Trump’s recent work visa ban?

I have been doing daily consultations with my clients since the ban was first announced on June 22. Many of them have been panicking. The consultations have generally been with people who had travelled to India before March for either their weddings or other reasons – one gentleman I spoke to had returned home to perform his father’s last rites. I’ve been hearing of some really sad situations, like one case of someone going back to India from the US because their mother was seriously ill with cancer.

Then, India shut down its borders. When the visa holders travelled in early March, nobody really knew the world was soon going to change so dramatically, and now they are stuck.

A few luckily had other visas in their passport, so now we are exploring the option of trying to bring them back to the United States on B-1/B-2 visa. But the majority of those impacted have been left without an option. Several had booked their appointments at the consulate and had even gone through the biometrics part of the process. They were waiting for the final interview when the consulates shut in India, and now because of the proclamation, they will remain stuck in India.

What all avenues are you exploring to help your clients?

We’re trying everything – lawsuits, appeals, going to media and even begging for humanitarian exemptions.

Some clients are now looking at the Canadian option: going to Canada and becoming a citizen there because they have an expedited Green Card process for high-skilled individuals. They hope that would make it easier to enter the United States on a TN-1 visa.

The reason given for the proclamation was to protect American jobs. But if I’m on an H-4 visa – the spouse of an H-1B visa holder – and I want to re-enter the country, I’m not going to be taking anyone’s job. What the government is doing here is using an excuse that is not applicable to me and others in my situation. Such cases have a much better chance of winning a lawsuit.

Do you think there is any possibility of a modification to the proclamation? What do you anticipate will happen next?

In general, I’ve found that the current administration doesn’t roll-back policies or make amendments to help people. Especially when the whole idea here is to act like the ban is meant to protect Americans.

We’re currently in a knowledge economy. It’s not the olden days of an industrial workforce. So when you’re pandering to people who don’t necessarily have the knowledge or skills that are in high demand in this economy, it helps no one.

I doubt something will happen from the government’s end – unless we sue.

The current administration has come down particularly hard on immigrants. What’s it like being an immigration lawyer in America at this moment in time?

It’s extremely frustrating to be an immigration lawyer in today’s very anti-immigrant climate, especially because this sentiment is coming from the top. To a large extent, what’s most bothersome is the hypocrisy of Trump. These orders are coming from someone whose two of three wives have been immigrants, someone who has hired both H1 and H2-B workers on many of his properties to perform work. So there is both frustration and disappointment.

But it is also extremely exhilarating to be able to challenge and sue. We have been challenging H-1B visa denials which break the law, filing appeals, filing a writ of mandamus for excessive delays. In the majority of cases, we get approvals immediately.

We’ve been winning most of the cases because in the US, you have the balance of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. So whenever any one branch oversteps, the other two branches come into play to impose checks and balances, to keep them in check.

Could you talk about the legality of this proclamation?

I’ve been practising immigration law for 30 years, and I’ve seen more executive orders being issued on immigration in the last three years than in all the years combined before that. The constitution and the law do allow the president to restrict the entry of foreign nationals into the United States based on an emergency – when there is some threat, for example in the time of war. They’re now trying everything and stretching the meaning of the law.

Every president has the right to ensure the protection of its citizens from foreign invaders during a war-time scenario. The law provides for it, but what Trump is saying is that there’s a war against the virus and keeping people out using that. Such a measure has never been taken before to keep out broad classes of people.

Experts see the proclamation as a political move ahead of the November presidential election. Could you talk about that?

It’s very clearly a political move but it is playing out on a human level – it is impacting lives. One person contacted me a week ago because his wife is now stuck in India. She had flown down for a week or 10 days to be with her father during his surgery and left their three-year-old here with his father. But then, India shut its borders so she couldn’t get a flight out and now the visa ban has happened. The child is essentially growing up without his mother. On a human and humane level, it is devastating, it is tragic.

If the bona fide intention was to protect American jobs, is that really happening? There are very few jobs that are truly being protected. In fact, the move has had the exact opposite effect of taking away jobs, preventing the growth of the economy and not helping the economy to grow at a faster pace – because all H1-B holders have to be in a speciality occupation. Generally, they are in the technology field, where the demand for skilled personnel is far excess of the supply that is available in the country.

By throttling our own progress and the ability to get needed personnel, we’re not helping ourselves or our country.