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What happens to H-1B workers stranded in India?

Pregnant wives, ailing spouses wait for many of them in the US as visa freeze threatens to tear apart families.

June 23, 2020 / 08:04 PM IST

US President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend H-1B visas, which are popular among IT professionals, has left hundreds of stranded Indians and their families in a lurch.

Trump, through a proclamation, banned the entry of H-1B, L-1/L-2, J-1 and H-2B workers till December 31, 2020. This means that Indians waiting for these work visas will not be able to travel to the US, even though families of many of them are still in that country.

There are around 1,500 workers, most of them H-1B visa holders, who came to India before the lockdown was announced and flights grounded. They can’t  go back as their visas have expired. An H-1B visa is issued for three years and can be renewed.

Sridhar* has been working with a top IT firm in the US for seven years. The techie came to India in February for his father’s final rites. His H-1B visa expired a month later and he applied for a renewal on March 26 but his appointment was cancelled after the coronavirus outbreak forced consulates to shut down.

“I wanted to go back early to be with my pregnant wife, who is due in September, and my four-year-old son,” he told Moneycontrol recently.

Sridhar is not sure about his next move. He did not want to bring his wife back to India due to COVID-19 risk but now he does seem to have a choice.

He has a home there and his son is in school. He doesn’t know when, if at all, he will be able to go back to wind everything up?

Anjana* is worried about her husband. She came to her hometown in Kerala with their two young children in December 2019 after she was denied H-1B visa.

“I wanted to take a break and had applied for H-4 visa in February. My appointment was on March 18,” she said, referring to the visa that allows spouses of H-1B holders and their under-21 children to live in the US.

She is not sure if she will be able to go back to the US. The prolonged visa uncertainty has already taken a toll on the family. Her husband has been diagnosed with depression.

He is on heavy medication for depression and anxiety. "He is alone and breaks down every time he calls," she said.“I just hope he stays alive till we can see each other.”

Netra Chavan, who moderates one of the largest Facebook groups for H-1B and H-4 visa holders, said the move was unfair for those unable to get their visas renewed and stamped due to lockdown.

“These Indians, who were stranded because of lockdown, should not be penalised,” she said.

The next step?

In the proclamation, there are some exemptions for those working for food-supply chain and in critical areas such as defence, law enforcement, diplomacy or national security of the US.

The exemptions also include those in the medical and COVID-19 research field and workers necessary to facilitate the immediate and continued economic recovery of the US.

However, these exemptions will be at the discretion of consular officer

“Until we get clarity, we don’t have an option but to wait and watch,” Anjana said.

(*Names changed to protect identity.)

Swathi Moorthy
first published: Jun 23, 2020 06:18 pm