Indians in the US scrambled to get ahead of Trump’s H-1B suspension

Change your plans.
Change your plans.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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Khyati came to the US seven years ago as an 18-year-old college student and stayed on after landing a job at one of the big four consulting firms in New York. But in June, during a visit to Mumbai that stretched into months because of a coronavirus lockdown, she began hearing rumours that she might soon be shut out of the US permanently because of a ban on H-1B visa workers.

Though she was booked on a repatriation flight for June 26, she heeded warnings from immigration lawyers, and booked herself out of India earlier even though it meant paying full fare again.

The pandemic upended lives in many different ways. For those who straddle more than one country, like H-1B workers, the swirl of rumours about looming action by Donald Trump against the visa category added another agonising layer of uncertainty to the upheaval caused by the coronavirus.

Now back at work in the US, Khyati has a new worry: being laid off by the end of the year. A resurgence in Covid cases is delaying economic recovery, and employers are becoming wary of sponsoring workers like her in the face of a White House that appears intent on undoing the H-1B visa.

“I feel like the insecurity has really increased so I may move back” to India, says Khyati, noting that if she’s laid off she’ll have 60 days to find a new job or be forced to leave anyway. “That is quite stressful.”

Lawyers estimate between 2,000 and 3,000 Indians were stuck in a similar limbo in the days leading up to Trump’s June 22 proclamation suspending H-1B visas for the rest of the year, and faced the choice of flying in the middle of a pandemic or saying good-bye to their jobs. The H-1B workers Quartz spoke to asked not to use their full names to avoid drawing attention from the US immigration agency.

A dash to get flights before the ban

With the coronavirus steadily getting  worse both in India and the US, Khyati took four flights—Mumbai-Delhi, Delhi-Chicago, Chicago-Charlotte, Charlotte-New York. She also spent more than $3,000 because she had booked two separate flights, with no shot at claiming a refund. At least three of her friends were flying back around the same time, each of whom had booked between two and four flights in panic.

When the order was issued, Khyati realised there had been no need for her to rush back because her visa was not affected. The suspension only applied to new H-1B visa-holders or those who required extensions, and whose visas had not yet been validated with a stamp at the time the announcement was made.

“I would not have travelled back if there was more clarity and less fear,” she said.

Another consultant from New York, Niharika, was also in India—initially on a short work trip, but then stuck at her parents’ home when Covid-19 gripped the world—when the rumours started doing the rounds. She struggled to map out her next steps—her visa was due for an extension stamp in July but embassies weren’t working. Plus, she was uncomfortable getting on a flight just then.

“I feared going back at that time. New York was a hotspot. My roommate there had tested positive for Covid so I wouldn’t be able to go back to my apartment for some time, and it’s not like offices were open anyway,” the 25-year-old said. But she had already used up her paid leave. “I couldn’t buy myself more time.”

Niharika was still debating whether to return to her job in the US, when Trump’s proclamation was announced. Her employer gave her a letter detailing her visa status and skill set to show to immigration officers—something they had never done over the last four years during her annual  trips to India. “They were anticipating people would get harassed by immigration,” she said.

Weighing her options—she has an offer to enroll in a UK graduate school in the fall—Niharika decided to resign from her job early and remain in India rather than navigate an increasing unfriendly system. Her friends in New York will now have to pack up her apartment for her.

Others in the same boat are staring at tough choices. Many were totally stranded when consulates starting shutting down and appointments were no longer available. And the ripple effect is big. One Indian tech worker in Connecticut told the Verge that if she can’t go back to the US soon, and ends up losing her job, her sister might have to drop out of college. “My sister can re-enter under her student visa, but she can’t pay for school if I can’t keep my job, which would mean losing her student visa too,” she said.

Fuzzy future

While it’s never easy for the holder of an H-1B visa to transfer to a new company within the stipulated 60-day window, this year is looking grimmer than others as thousands are laid off, and anti-immigrant rhetoric weighs on employers. “It’s never a deluge but usually, we see a small stream of H-1B porting applications,” said Poorvi Chothani, managing partner at immigration law firm LawQuest. “This year, it’s definitely a thinner trickle than usual.”

In fresh restrictions on H-1B workers, the president signed an executive order yesterday (Aug. 4) barring holders of those visas from directly or indirectly working on federal contracts. An earlier policy change made it hard to relocate these workers domestically—a transfer from a client site in one state to another used to take about one week, but now takes almost six weeks.

“For the last year and a half, since they changed our domestic travel rules, I had very little say on what projects I wanted to be on,” said Niharika. “For me, consulting in the US is pretty much ruled out now. As you rise through the ranks, you want to develop expertise and I wouldn’t be able to do that if I can’t travel.”

Given these shackles, it’s becoming harder for employers to justify H-1B hiring. Some are even choosing not to collect on visas already awarded to them by the lottery system, and onboard those foreign workers, said Chothani, though this might be due to the larger coronavirus fallout, she said.

“Employers have lost contracts from end clients and there’s a domino effect,” she added.