Covid-19: No deportation, but no coming back either for H1B visa holders

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to accept and process applications and petitions, and many of these forms are available for online filing. Photo: Reuters/File
With the US announcing an extension of all employment visas, thousands of expatriate Indian H-1B visa holders, who had recently lost their jobs, have averted the risk of being forcefully deported.

However, those looking for a way back home are expected to remain stranded until the current ban on international flights is lifted.

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) brought out a late but much-needed update to its existing visa policy. “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognizes that there are immigration-related challenges as a direct result of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic,” it said.

Generally, individuals on short visa stays must depart the US before their authorised period of admission expires. This becomes tougher for H-1B visa holders — the vast majority of whom are Indians — since they need to find an alternative employment within 60 days to retain their H-1B status in case they are fired. Industry sources peg the number of Indians working on an H-1B visa at 300,000 individuals.

However, the DHS has pointed out that people may now “mitigate the immigration consequences of Covid-19 by timely filing an application for an extension of stay (EOS), or change of status (COS)”.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to accept and process applications and petitions, and many of these forms are available for online filing.

On the other hand, however, senior officials in the External Affairs Ministry said no evacuation flights have been finalised to the US. “It was because of our efforts that the US State Department decided to extend the validity of visas in the first place. We had requested them to do so over the last week, in light of the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic,” said one official.

He also mentioned that the government had considered the difficulties in airlifting out so many citizens during a time like this.
Another official reminded that the situation had taken a turn for the worse since earlier this month, when scores of US-based Indians had appealed to the government to evacuate them. As of Tuesday, there were nearly 600,000 active coronavirus cases in the US.

“As we had said earlier — students, tourists, and those on short-term visas remain our priority,” said a senior official. People in the know said India’s six diplomatic missions across the US have received more than 2,000 requests for evacuation. In all jurisdictions, local embassies are in touch with affected citizens and preparing a tentative list of possible evacuees once, and if, evacuations do start.

Impact on IT sector

Indian information technology (IT) workers have been the major beneficiaries of the H-1B regime, but the Trump administration has made good on its poll promise to tighten the visa regime.

While several Indian IT firms have reduced their dependence on H-1B visas over the past three years, there are still a sizable number of H-1B visa holders at present. With lockdown in India having been extended and airspace virtually shut, several people whose visas have either expired or nearing expiry, and those who have lost jobs or client accounts due to Covid-19, are living in uncertainty in the US.

A California-based technology professional said she is worried about her status in the US after May. “My visa is going to expire in May, and we cannot extend it because we have been here for six years already, and we aren’t getting clarity on what this means for us going forward,” she said.

Another employee of a mid-sized Indian IT services firm, who went to the US in February, has another conundrum. The project he was working on was scrapped, by which time airspace restrictions in India had already come into force.

“I have a valid visa but no clarity on when my return will be possible. My (Indian) employer has asked me to stay here but I had no permanent place so I am staying in an Airbnb on a weekly booking basis. All my savings will be spent on Airbnb and there is also the fear of getting infected,” he said.

The External Affairs 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.

Two and a half months after the first confirmed Covid-19 case was reported in India, there remains no standard operating procedure in place for airlifting stranded citizens from other corona-hit nations.

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