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Is there any sigh of relief for work visa holders stuck in India?

NEW DELHI: When Nilakant Iyer (name changed), an H-1B visa holder originally from Chennai, came to India in November 2021, he had little inkling that going back and joining work in the US will become a struggle for him. “I traveled to my home town after my wife’s delivery. My plan was to go back after Christmas. But things were not that easy, and I had to reschedule my appointments several times in order to get a booking for visa stamping” says Iyer, who is working remotely at present in India.

There is no denying the fact that in the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic flipped the lives upside down for many. And this also holds true for Indian work visa holders in the US.

After coronavirus induced travel restrictions by former US President Donald Trump in June 2020, the non-immigrant travelers including Indian nationals working in America had to face another travel ban imposed by president Joe Biden. In the wake of rising Covid cases around the world, in May 2021, US President Biden signed a proclamation barring non-immigrant travelers from several countries including India from entering the United States.

With this announcement, many Indian nationals on a non-immigrant visa (H-1B) suddenly found themselves stuck and stranded in India, cut off from their families. Most of them visited India to see their ailing parents affected by a coronavirus. The ban meant they couldn’t join their families anytime soon.

They had to settle with working remotely. Many feared losing their jobs as they cannot be away from the US for an unpredictable period of time. To avoid endless wait times, some even took the difficult decision of staying back in the States but had to bear the guilt for not making it to their parents’ last rites.

The ban had a disproportionate effect on Indian nationals as they account for the most number of work visa holders in the US, followed by Chinese nationals.

Bureaucratic hurdle

As much it was about travel restrictions, it was also about a major bureaucratic hurdle that work visa holders face.

In order to reenter the US, an H-1B visa work holder needs to get in-person stamping at a US Consulate in India.

With the closure of various consulates due to the ban, many couldn’t secure the appointments.

New Jersey-based Ashu Mahajan, who is an H-1B visa holder, was lucky as Senator Bob Menendez reportedly helped him secure an emergency appointment to get his visa stamped.

Mahajan had come to India in May 2021 to care for his father seriously affected by a coronavirus. With the stamp, the 43-year-old boarded the plane back to America. But not all were as lucky as him. There were many who kept waiting to be reunited with their family and kids.

In order to find relief in their situation, many stranded travelers turned to social media. A petition started on change.org urged US President Joe Biden to let non-immigrant visa holders stuck in India return to the US. It garnered widespread support from all quarters.‘

‘Unfair and arbitrary’ ban

The ban imposed by president Biden was termed arbitrary as it exempted US citizens and their family members to travel to the US. Many claimed that the travel ban ignored the fact that some H-1B visa workers have lived in the US for years, pay regular taxes and some even have started the green card process.

What the road ahead looks like

While travel restrictions have eased, getting a slot for visa stamping is like winning a lottery. To add to the woes of travelers, there is increased scrutiny by consulates.

“Initially I got an appointment in Delhi for January. But with the Omicron Covid variant at its peak in that month. I couldn’t take the risk of traveling with my wife and new born baby and hence rescheduled it to March 8 in my hometown. But with the fear of rejection, and time needed to reapply, I again scheduled it back to January 27 in Chennai itself,” recounts Iyer, who had to remain glued to his laptop for 4-5 hours daily to book an appointment.

Then there have been reports of some system glitches too. “When I used to log in, sometimes the website didn’t display any appointment calendar for scheduling. And multiple logins in a day meant being locked out for 72 hours,” says Iyer.

Luckily, Iyer works for an American company and therefore can remain outside India for 6 months with his employer’s permission, but this is not the case with others. “If it’s an MNC and has client-based operations, one needs a letter from the client which is difficult to procure.”

The recent announcement of an in-person interview waiver for certain visa categories till December 2022, including for the H-1B category is expected to bring some relief. However, the interview waiver program is not pretty straightforward. The requirement to meet certain conditions can leave many applicants out of its scope.

With massive backlogs, the road ahead is still not smooth for many work visa holders wishing to come to India and those who want to make their way back to the US.

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