Coronavirus nightmare for H-1B, F-1 visa holders

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NEW YORK – It’s not just the threat of being infected by the coronavirus and becoming a statistic in the pandemic that’s become a nightmare for visa workers and international students on a visa in the United States, or those stranded overseas. Unexpected roadblocks for some are reaching unsurmountable levels, leaving them totally helpless to the situation.

With immigration rules tightening, the rules of the game for immigrants on visas have vastly changed in the last few weeks. There is trepidation on who gets to or continues to be able to build the American Dream. And who gets to be kicked out peremptorily back to their home country; or are not allowed back into the US.

From being stranded in India with no flights in the foreseeable future resuming back to the US, to waiting out an immigration ban, and the fear of losing status as jobs disappear and no new sponsors in sight, one can now add the anguish of receiving money in a bank account, with the anguish that it could come back to haunt later with a penalty and possible deportation for tax fraud.

Politico reported that thousands of foreign workers, many living overseas, are receiving stimulus checks designated for US residents due to an unforeseen glitch that funneled taxpayer dollars to other countries, according to tax consultants and the recipients themselves.

College-age workers who spent time in the U.S. in the last two years — some of whom returned home long before the coronavirus pandemic — have been surprised to find $1,200 checks deposited into their bank accounts. And with no clear guidance on how to return it, they’re holding onto the money or racing to spend it before the Internal Revenue Service realizes the mistake, the report said.

The error stems from a common tax-filing blunder, particularly for those on F-1 student and J-1 exchange visas. These workers, studying at universities and working summer jobs, often turn to TurboTax and other e-filing systems without knowing that the systems are designed only for U.S. residents.

As a result, many temporary foreign workers each year file the wrong tax forms. The IRS rarely catches the error because nonimmigrant workers’ Social Security numbers have the same number of digits as those of U.S. citizens, and therefore appear to be identical, accountants say, Politico reported.

There were 1.1 million foreign students in the US last year, according to the Institute of International Education, and the government granted nearly 400,000 J-1 temporary visas. Accountants with expertise in nonresident taxes say the majority of these workers either don’t file or file incorrectly, and in recent days they’ve been flooded with calls about mistaken payments.

Students were motivated to return the money out of fear they would be banned from receiving visas in the future — or worse, deported — if the government learned they had committed tax fraud, said Politico after interviewing some of them.

In a survey of more than 500 schools last week, 43 percent said they had students and scholars who believed they received a payment in error.

For others on a work visa, resultant job losses mean it’s a ticking time bomb before they lose their legal status in the US.

A report this week from Bloomberg said about 200,000 H-1B visa workers could lose their legal status by the end of June, according to Jeremy Neufeld, an immigration policy analyst with the Washington D.C.-based think tank Niskanen Center.

Thousands more who are not seeking resident status may also be forced to return home, he said. About three-quarters of H-1B visas go to people working in the technology industry, though the exact levels vary year by year.

Those include dentists like Manasi Vasavada, who has less than three weeks left before she loses her legal right to be in the country. The dental practice in Passaic County, New Jersey, where Vasavada, 31, has worked for almost two years closed its doors in mid-March due to Covid-19. She has been on an unpaid leave of absence ever since.

H-1B recipients like Vasavada can only remain in the country legally for 60 days without being paid. Her husband Nandan Buch, also a dentist, is in the country on an H-1B visa that expires in June. They have been watching the days tick by with growing fear, the report said. The couple have a combined $520,000 in student loans from the advanced dental degrees they completed at US universities, which would be nearly impossible to pay back on the salaries they would earn in India.

The visa crisis is causing “a catastrophe at a human level and an economic level,” Doug Rand, who worked on technology and immigration policy in the Obama administration before co-founding Boundless Immigration Inc., a company that helps people navigate the immigration system, was quoted as saying.

In a letter sent to the State and Homeland Security departments on April 17, TechNet, a lobbying group whose members include Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, joined a coalition of trade groups calling for relief for foreign-born workers, reported Bloomberg. The letter requested a delay in work authorization expiration dates until at least Sept. 10. “Without action, these issues will lead to hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs and have profound negative economic effects,” the letter read.

Then there are those exasperated visa workers stranded in India, who are now seeking desperate measures to try get back into the country, before it’s too late.

A Times of India report said an H-1B visa worker in Hyderabad is trying to arrange a charter flight from a California-based for $900,000 to bring him, his family, and potentially a couple of hundred other visa workers and their family members back to the US. Most of them say that their travel insurance doesn’t cover their prolonged stay in India.

An NRI was quoted as saying that he’s already lost his job, and his wife, a dependent on an H-4 visa is back in New Jersey. He needs to rush back to the US and find a new visa sponsor before his visa expires in June.

An India Today report last month noted the plight of a data scientist from California who is now stranded, with his visa expiring in June. He had completed his master’s degree in Data Informatics from the University of Southern California, and was working on an OPT. He’s at risk of losing that, and much more.

Earlier, a report in the New Indian Express had noted that while countries such as UK have given their approval for NRIs to return, US is only allowing its citizens and permanent residents to come back.

With Trump’s immigration ban likely to be extended to temporarily stop granting of Green Cards and work visas, plus with no flights resuming from India, it could be a knockout punch for many H-1B and F-1 visa holders.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: sujeet@newsindiatimes.com Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)  

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