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COVID-19 impact: US visas for Indian students drop by 64% in Oct 2019-Sept 2020 — the lowest since 2000

Skilled worker visas like L-1 and H-1B, too, declined by 46% and 28%, respectively, in FY20 of US immigration calendar. The decline could be attributed to COVID-19, since visa offices were shut down for processing.

November 13, 2020 / 09:04 AM IST

The number of Indian students who got the US student visa (F-1) has dropped by 64 percent in FY20 (October 2019-September 2020), compared to the previous year. The nearly 15,000 visas issued in FY20 is the lowest since FY2000, going by the recent data released by the US Department of State. The financial year starts from October to September for immigration.

This was followed by L-1 and H-1B, where the visa issued declined by 46 percent and 28 percent, respectively, in FY20 from FY19.

The decline could be attributed to COVID-19 since visa offices were shut down for processing. While the number of skilled worker visa might increase going forward, it might be a wait-and-watch mode for students, pointed out experts.

COVID-19 pandemic

At the back of the pandemic, US visa offices in India cancelled processing of applications from March 16 at the back of COVID-19. Visa processing resumed only from August in India, with student visa being a priority, followed by emergency appointments of H-1B, L-1 and other visa applicants and their dependents.

In addition, apart from repatriation flights, commercial operations have not resumed, further affecting visa issuance.

For FY20, the number of student visas issued was around 15,000, compared to close to 43,000 in FY19. Most of the drop has been between April and September 2020. For the six-month period, close to 4,000 student visas were issued as opposed to 34,000 the same period last year.

The number of H-1B visas issued were 900 for the six months ending September 2020, compared to 55,000 in FY19 for the same period.

How will Biden presidency impact these visas?

While H-1B visas might augur well, going forward, it is not clear how much the student visa category will fare, though it is unlikely to be this low, say experts.

Aditya Narayan Mishra, CEO, CIEL HR Services, said that there will be a definite upswing in skilled worker visas like H-1B in 2021. He sees two factors.

One, visa processing that was paused due to COVID-19 has begun and commercial flight operations, too, will start. Nilanjan Roy, CFO, Infosys, pointed out in a  recent earnings call, that the company expects the travel cost to go up with business travel resuming in coming quarters.

Two, US companies are accelerating their transformation journey to ensure business continuity, resulting in a huge demand for the tech workforce. Though IT services firms can help bridge the gap to some extent through outsourcing, the demand for skilled tech workforce is high.

This would further drive the need for H-1B visa holders and Biden’s pro-immigration policy will help, Mishra added.

On the other hand, the student visa category is going to be a ‘wait-and-watch category’ as parents and students are worried about job prospects in the US.

F-1 student visas

The number of Indian students pursuing higher education has grown in the US for six consecutive years, and, as of November 2019, the Indian student diaspora stood at 2 lakh, according to a report by Open Doors.

K Anand (real name withheld), an H-1B visa holder who did his higher education in the US, had pointed out earlier that the US has been attractive for students not just for the quality of education but also for job prospects.

If job prospects were curtailed through regulations, Anand said it would make American universities unattractive and non-viable for Indian students.

US universities are largely funded by foreign students’ tuition fees and curtailing their job prospects will directly hit them, driving them to bankruptcy, pointed out Mishra.

Case in point are the two lawsuits filed by prominent US universities such as Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology against Trump’s wage hike rule, which increased wages by as much as 50 percent in some regions.

In addition, the Biden government supports the proposed rule that would choose fresh H-1B petitions based on wages, instead of the lottery system. This would also make it tough for companies to hire fresh graduates.

Though Biden's policy talks about removing visa cap for STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates, it is not clear how much it will benefit the student community, along with the limitations such as wage-based H-1B selection if implemented.

Mishra explained that the Biden government is likely to take the student ecosystem into account, and there will be clarity in 6-9 months. “Until then, some (students and parents) in India and China will wait and watch,” he added.

Swathi Moorthy
first published: Nov 11, 2020 03:25 pm