Coronavirus impact: Indian expats with expired visas on sticky wicket

The ministry’s stance is based on the argument that “Indians currently abroad on employment visas like H-1B work in multinational firms, draw significant wages, and in many cases have retrenchment benefits”.
Indian expatriates in the US and other countries, who have lost their jobs or have a work permit that has expired, may not be able to return before the current ban on international flights is lifted, in view of the virus outbreak.

Senior government officials have confirmed that no evacuation flights to the US are on the radar, given the surge in cases to above 245,000 (as of Friday), in the country.

“For all jurisdictions, our first priority is students, tourists, and those on short-term visas. However, India’s six diplomatic missions across the US are in touch with affected citizens and preparing a tentative list of possible evacuees once and if evacuations do start,” said a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs.

The ministry’s stance is based on the argument that “Indians currently abroad on employment visas like H-1B work in multinational firms, draw significant wages, and in many cases have retrenchment benefits”. People in the know said no meetings were scheduled with the US State Department regarding the matter.

On the other hand, those stuck in the US also face no official legal guidance as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has temporarily suspended routine in-person services since March 18. The USCIS plans to re-open offices on April 7.

The IT sector, a big beneficiary of H-1B visas, has been trying to sort out the issue with US authorities for some time now.

“In the US, we have requested the Departments of Homeland Service, Labor and U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services for a 90-day grace period for professionals to depart the US following expiry of their H-1B/ L-1 visas. Additionally, we have sought ease of Labor Condition Application (LCA) norms to allow for ‘work from home’,” said Shivendra Singh, vice-president and head (global trade development) of Nasscom. The UK has announced visa extensions until May 31 for all foreign nationals, while France has also extended visas for three months.

“Many IT professionals in the US are at the risk of being laid off because their employers have lost end-client contracts. Such individuals can remain in the US for up to 60 days, during which they can look for a new job with an employer who can file a new H-1B petition for them. If there is no job in sight, the worker should leave to avoid running the risk of accruing unlawful presence,” said Poorvi Chothani, managing partner of LawQuest.

Nasscom’s Singh said people leading the MEA’s COVID-19 efforts have confirmed they have advised Indian Ambassadors to take this up with foreign governments.

There have been reports of thousands of Indians under similar visa regimes being stuck in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, South Africa, and the UAE, among other areas.

At present, there is no standard operating procedure in place for airlifting stranded citizens from corona-hit nations, with the External Affairs ministry identifying particularly hit areas such as Iran, China, and South Korea.

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