Himanshu was on a flight from the United States of America to India when his mother lost her battle against COVID-19. It was too late by the time he reached the hospital in Uttar Pradesh.
A week later, Himanshu lost his father to the virus. Inconsolable at losing both his parents in a matter of days, Himanshu is struggling to make sense of his loss while taking care of his COVID-afflicted brother.
He feels fortunate that he was at least able to see his father at the hospital one last time. But as he grapples with the death of his parents, uncertainty over his return to the US looms large for lack of a visa re-stamping appointment at the US embassy in India – without which he cannot return to the US.
Himanshu has been working in US since 2013 on an H-1B visa, and is in queue for a green card, his petition approved. With travel restrictions from India to US starting 4 May, he knows that he will not be able to reach US anytime soon. He fears losing his job in Georgia, US.
“No one knows when the appointments for visa stamping at the US embassy (in New Delhi) are going to become available. At least give us some timeline. What flexibility will I get if I am stuck here for long? We want to know what will happen? US is a country built on no taxation without representation. I pay taxes in US. I should have recourse,” he says.
No Available Appointments
The much coveted and exceptionally skilled work visa category, H-1B allows Indians to work, live and raise families in the US for many years; but demands that each time the visa gets renewed – and if the visa holder travels out of US – it must be stamped on their passport for re-entry into US.
With the US embassy’s consular services in India severely impacted by the public health catastrophe, getting an appointment for stamping the visa has become difficult.
New York-based immigration attorney Cyrus Mehta testifies to that. “US consulate is suffering too due to COVID. If someone doesn’t have a H-1B visa stamp on their passport, they can try to apply for a waiver of an interview, if you had a visa stamped within 48 months – you can put it in the drop box – it might be of benefit to some. We have had some clients who successfully returned in early March because the embassy was not impacted then.”
Hundreds of H-1B visa holders like Himanshu do not qualify for the interview waiver option. Having rushed to India to help their loved ones ravaged by COVID, they are now stranded, away from their families in US whose support they need most at a time when they are grieving. With an unaddressed green card backlog, these Indian H-1B holders continue to bear the brunt of archaic visa stamping rules that haven’t been modified for three decades, since the inception of the H-1B program. They are constantly trying their luck at finding interview slots on the US embassy scheduling site multiple times a day, only to discover that available appointments are months away.
US President Joe Biden has imposed restrictions on travel from India starting 4 May, that blocks most non-American citizens from entering the US for an indefinite period. There are no timelines as to when the travel restrictions will be lifted. Social media groups are abuzz with posts on the uncertainty around H-1B re-stamping appointments and travel restrictions.
A Difficult Choice
Notwithstanding odds while some Indians in US are flying back home to help their parents and relatives battle the crisis, some others are making a difficult choice to stay back, assuming the guilt of not making it to India for their parents’ last rites, because their jobs do not allow them to be away from US for an unpredictable period of time, while waiting for their visas to be re-stamped.
For Karthik, who has lived in the US since 2007, his H-1B visa status would not have allowed him to enter US without re-stamping his passport in India, if he had flown to Chennai to take care of his hospitalised parents.
Fearing that he will not be able to return to his job, his dependent wife and two young children in US, for an indefinite number of months, he had to make the difficult decision to not go to Chennai, even after losing his father to COVID-19. “It hurts me deeply that I couldn’t travel to spend time with the man who spent his entire life for my wellbeing,” he said to The Quint.
Indianapolis-based Karthik expresses the thoughts that have been tormenting him since his father passed away on 28 April, half way across the world in Chennai. Guilty and grieving in faraway Indianapolis, praying for his mother who was on oxygen support in an ICU at the same hospital where her husband breathed his last, tragedy struck again when he lost his mother on 3 May.
“I couldn’t give a hug and say good bye, couldn’t do the last rites that they deserved. Couldn’t give my shoulder to my sisters to tell them I am there for them to fill the void that dad and mom left. Thanks to the broken immigration system, I couldn’t be there,” says he, breaking down.
Activists in US have been highlighting immigration issues facing H-1B families for years.
Neha Mahajan came to US in 2008 on an H-4 spousal visa. A famous former host of a FM desi radio show in the New York-New Jersey area, she was a journalist and news anchor on TV Today’s ‘Aajtak’ in New Delhi before moving to US. Unable to work on her dependent visa, Neha co-founded the advocacy group SIIA (Skilled Immigrants in America) to advocate fairness for immigrant families who, with their green card petitions, are as Obama called them, ‘Americans-in-Waiting’.
Co-Director of SIIA, Neha has reached out to hundreds of state and federal lawmakers, pleading for immigration reform. Voices for increasing annual green card caps for Indians and mending the unnecessary stamping rules are yet to be heard by US administrations. Her family is suffering the brunt of COVID and antiquated immigration rules. She and her two daughters in New Jersey are half way across the world from her husband Ashu Mahajan, who lost his father to the virus on 21 April.
Ashu had rushed to New Delhi to be with his father who was on ventilator support, and was able to see his ‘completely unconscious dad after pleading with the hospital staff’, before he breathed his last. Ashu is alone at a time of such intense heartache, unable to return to New Jersey as he, even with an approved green card petition, is unable to get an appointment to get his H-1B visa re-stamped.
Neha and Ashu are trying multiple times a day to find interview slots. “No dates are available. Kabhi November 2021 dikhata hai, kabhi February 2022 dikhata hai (At times it shows November 2021 is available, at times it goes further down to February 2022),” they say.
“It is like playing a game of roulette and getting lucky. My question is that the coronavirus is still raging, the entire world has adapted to work from home, why can’t US embassy give an emergency approval to re-enter US, if we have to go to India to help our ageing parents when there is no body there to help them? We aren’t terrorists, we have valid H1-B visas and approved green card documents. We have been living in the US for years, paying taxes, then what is the need for in-person appointments and finger printing each time?”Neha Mahajan
With the indeterminate travel ban from India, Neha has no idea when she will be united with Ashu.
A prominent Biden supporter, Indian American Ajay Bhutoria has written to representatives to bring attention to the plight of H-1B holders, – “I am reaching out to members of Congress to help out H-1B holders who have had to travel to India to take care of their ailing parents during the recent COVID crisis. I am advising people in the community that if their visa needs a stamp, the appointments might take many months as the US consulate is not fully operational at this point, hence it is better to not travel to India till the COVID situation settles down.”
A languishing immigration system has left Indian H-1B families in deep distress as they navigate the loss of their parents and the fear of losing their jobs, with no light at the end of the tunnel.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)