EXCLUSIVE: Family separations, job losses and financial worries take heavy toll on people awaiting visa renewals, as U.S missions in India remain closed.
(Editor’s note: The names of some individuals in this story have been changed at their request.)
Poorva Dixit has not been able to see her husband and two girls, ages six and three, for eight weeks now, something that she says is “killing her.”
“Mom can you just come through the screen for a minute and please hug me?” pleaded her youngest daughter on one of their daily FaceTime calls last week.
Dixit, who works for a tech company in San Francisco, went to Mumbai, India, on March 4 to be with her ailing mother, who met with an accident at home. Her mom passed away 10 days later.
Now she cannot travel back to the United States because her H-1B visa, which was extended while she was in the U.S., is not stamped on her passport.
The mother of two cannot get that done because the U.S. consulate in Mumbai has been closed indefinitely for the past two months because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, her visa appointment was canceled because of the lockdown.
Dixit is one of the more than thousand H-1B, H4 and other nonimmigrant visa holders who are stranded in India, unable to get their visas stamped on passports, as all five U.S. missions across the country have not resumed their visa services.
The U.S. embassy in New Delhi and the consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Kolkata canceled all the routine immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments on March 16, eight days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown in India.
The website of the embassy says the missions will resume routine visa services “as soon as possible but are unable to provide a specific date at this time.”
“This has severely impacted our travel plans, ability to work, study, receive healthcare, and has led to a collateral loss of our belongings in the United States,” said Rajiv Mehta (name changed at his request), a tech professional working for a Connecticut company now stuck at his New Delhi home, waiting for the embassy to open for his visa interview.
“These are taxpaying, law-abiding people who have been holding jobs for a long-time in the U.S. but had to travel to India for family emergencies, or visa renewals,” said Mehta. “The sudden closure of consulates has left them stranded and in jeopardy, as they are not able to return to their jobs, minor children and, spouses.”
Along with three others, Mehta runs multiple WhatsApp and Telegram groups for those similarly stranded in India and awaiting visa interviews. Through these groups, members share information with each and mobilize support for their cause.
Mehta and Dixit are among a few dozen lucky ones who are able to work remotely for their American employers. But a vast majority of the group members are not able to, for various reasons.
In fact, 26 H-1B visa holders who are in India awaiting visa interviews have already received pink slips. They lost their jobs because either their employer downsized its work force, or because they were required to work onsite.
Even those that are able to work remotely still have to worry about whether their job is next on the chopping block of occupations no longer deemed essential.
“Right now, because I’m working for a consulting firm, my job is also at risk, I’m not sure how long they will let me work from India remotely,” said Nadhya Venugopal (name changed at her request), who is currently stuck in her hometown of Chennai.
She traveled to India from California, where she works for a tech consulting company, to visit her sick father. He had melanoma, a form of skin cancer, and his leg had to be amputated after she landed in Chennai.
Venugopal, who earned a graduate degree from a U.S. university, was on Optional Practical Training until last year, when her H-1B was approved.
“Even though it is work from home in the U.S., we are still not sure because it depends on the climate and how long they will hold on to us,” she said.
“We have a contract that’s expiring. There’s a lot of risk to my job at this point. And being the only person earning in the family, there’s a lot at stake. It’s not like I can even bear those expenses.”
Venugopal said she is also weighed down by the thought of paying back a huge loan that she took out to study in the United States.
At the request of the American Bazaar, Mehta, and Vijay Kumar (name changed at his request), another WhatsApp group administrator, collected broad details about the stranded visa holders that are part of their groups.
Together, the groups have nearly a thousand members. Not surprisingly, a majority of them — 57 percent — are working in the tech industry. A fifth of them are dependents on H4 visas. The remaining H-1B visa holders include lawyers, healthcare workers, scientists, architects, and those employed in the financial sector.
Families in emergency situations
Like Dixit, among those stranded in India include many whose immediate family members are in emergency situations in the U.S., such as pregnant spouses and children with medical conditions that require frequent hospital visits.
For instance, Dallas resident Zaheer Iqbal (name changed at his request) is not able to return to the U.S. after traveling to India to treat a preexisting medical condition. With his visa pending approval after an interview, he has been placed in a category called “administrative processing.”
Once placed under administrative processing, the Department of State conducts additional background and security checks. The process takes anywhere from four weeks to several months.
In the meantime, Iqbal missed the birth of his first child, when his wife delivered a five-pound baby on May 14. The Dallas hospital discharged his spouse within 72 hours, despite the baby being born underweight.
Without any family members in the U.S., follow-up appointments, grocery shopping, taking care of the child, and transportation in general have become huge headaches for Iqbal and his wife, who is a stay-at-home mom and doesn’t drive.
A worried Iqbal asked during a phone interview on Sunday, “Who is going to take her, how is she going to travel, how is she going to commute, who is going to help her with all of the groceries, how is she going to cook?”
Iqbal said he has reached out to many individuals and groups, including religious places, to see if his wife could get some help. “But in this kind of situation who can we trust?” he wonders.
Mili Khatter, another Dallas resident who works in the tech industry, has not seen her two kids, a seven-year-old daughter with Type 1 diabetes and a two-year-old son, in over two months after getting stuck in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in India. The 12-year U.S. resident traveled to India on March 14, before the coronavirus lockdown began, to visit her sick mother, who was in hospital. Her mother passed away.
Khattar said a regular three-month endocrinologist appointment for her daughter had to be canceled. Similarly, her son’s pediatrician and ENT-recommended speech is being delayed. “As I am not there, the whole family is suffering,” she said.
Ajay Kumar (name changed at his request), who works for a company in Duluth, Georgia, is another person stuck in visa limbo. He flew to India in February to be with his father who suffered a massive stroke and was in a coma. A few days after he landed in India, his father passed away.
Back in the U.S., his pregnant wife, who is without a job, and their 6-year-old son are on their own.
In the past few weeks, these stranded H-1B workers have been desperately knocking on all doors, both individually and collectively. They have also written to various U.S. lawmakers representing the states and constituencies they live in and taken to social media in an attempt to raise awareness about their situation.
So far it has all fallen on deaf ears.
“I feel really helpless over here, I just don’t understand,” said Dixit. “I’ve been calling [the U.S. mission], I’ve been calling senators, I’ve sent emails. I’m hoping for some positive reply from someone and I don’t know who. I’ve been trying to contact anyone on this earth just to be with my kids.”
In recent weeks, U.S. citizens and permanent residents, as well as some H-1B holders who have their visas stamped, have returned to the U.S. on special flights operated by Air India. (Air traffic in India has not resumed.) But those waiting for their visa stamping are unable to return home for the foreseeable future.
Dixit says she was disappointed that H-1B visa holders like her were left to fend for themselves while the Department of State repatriated U.S. citizens and green card holders. “I understand that repatriation flights are for citizens and permanent residents,” she said. “But we pay the same taxes. It is not like an H-1B holder pays anything less than a citizen or a permanent resident. Fine, don’t put us on a repatriation flight. But at least think about our visas and we can take care of our flights.”
Mehta said those stranded in India include several individuals who have successfully completed their visa interviews, as their stamped passports are locked away at the Visa Application Center (VACs) for more than two months. Even though the Indian government has, in the past few days, relaxed lockdown measures to allow for offices to function with up to 33 percent of the essential staff, the VACs remain closed.
If they receive their passports back, this group of visa holders could fly back on the rescue flights that the two governments are operating at the moment.
Fearful about future
With the U.S. economy, which has shed jobs in record numbers, contracting significantly, they fear that their jobs maybe an email or a phone call away from vanishing.
Even though only 26 of those stranded in India have lost their jobs so far, more could, if they are unable to report back to work in a reasonable period.
If an H-1B holder loses a job, it won’t be easy to land a new one because the new employer has to not just offer a job, but sponsor a new H-1B visa as well. And it has to be done within 60 days of termination.
In an economy that has seen nearly 37 million Americans lose their jobs in the past eight weeks, it will be a near impossible task.
What makes matters more challenging for unemployed H-1B holders is that they will need to find a job that would also allow them to work remotely, at least for the time being, given the current lockdown situation.
Some 85 percent of those stranded in India are either homeowners, or have rental properties that they are paying for every month. Nearly all of them have at least one car loan that they are currently paying, along with insurance.
Mehta said most of the visa holders are the breadwinners of their respective families. “With the visa renewal process halted,” he said many are not working and not getting. “On the other hand, expenses like house rent, bill payments, mortgages, student loans, insurances continue to pile up,” he said.
While most of the people in visa limbo are still employed, only about one in 10 have the ability to work remotely. This means that a majority of them will have to continue to pay months of home mortgages, car payments, utilities and student loans in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, without a paycheck.
Those stranded in India are requesting the U.S. government to allow them to come back on humanitarian grounds, considering the unprecedented nature of the crisis and the emotional and physical toll that they have been subjected to.
“Everything is closed; we are stuck here and our families are there [in the U.S.],” said Mili Khatter, the mother of two kids, including a seven-year-old daughter with Type 1 diabetes. She wants the State Department to consider the cases of those that are currently stranded in India as a humanitarian issue.
“We didn’t come [to India] by choice,” she said. “It was a real emergency. Now we are worried about our family. All of us have families… At least think about the little kids. In this pandemic situation, we are worried about [having] only one parent there. If God forbid, something happens to that person, who is going to take care of our kids?”
Immigration attorney Johnson Myalil points out that current State Department and USCIS regulations are not sufficient to handle the problems faced by nonimmigrant visa holders, like the Indian nationals stuck outside the U.S. at the moment.
In the past hundred years, the world has never experienced a pandemic like Covid-19, which has shut down economies worldwide and triggered massive job losses.
Myalil, an attorney at High-Tech Immigration Law Group, based in Reston, VA, said the government should consider a humanitarian parole to people with extreme emergencies.
“The U.S. government should consider granting them some sort of parole. They can come here and file petitions and convert back to H-1B.”
According to the USCIS website, “Humanitarian parole is used sparingly to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible, into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a compelling emergency” and there “must be an urgent humanitarian reason or significant public benefit for the parole to be granted.”
Mehta, Kumar and their social media group members are requesting their repatriation through a process called “automatic visa revalidation.”
Under the process, nonimmigrants can re-enter America after their visa expires, if they visit Canada, Mexico or territories close to the U.S. for a period of less than 30 days, provided they have a valid Form I-94, which records entry and exits of nonimmigrant visa holders.
However, Myalil said any such “creative and out-of-the box solution is likely to meet with resistance from anti-immigrant groups and some in Congress.”
The USCIS told the American Bazaar that questions related to visas, including visa processing, and interviews, as well as questions pertaining to the status of U.S. embassies and consulates abroad and decisions they may implement in the future, must be directed to the Department of State.
The Bazaar has contacted the State Department, but it has not responded to an email seeking comment on the plight of the H-1B and other nonimmigrant visa holders in India.