NEW YORK: As rumors swirl over President Donald Trump’s Executive Actions on immigration, there’s trepidation among some legal residents from India in the United States. A prime concern: is it okay to travel overseas? What if there are new directives from the White House while on vacation? What if the ‘American Dream’ turns into an ‘American nightmare’, like it did for even Green Card holders from the seven Muslim-majority countries who were shunned at borders, barred from getting back to their home and normal life, targeted with a Travel Ban. Made to feel like social pariahs.
It’s not helped that the Trump administration’s gush of Executive Orders have targeted both legal and illegal immigrants simultaneously. The vicious cycle of rumors that emanated on social media has been a concoction of fake news, believable rumors and rank truth, making it hard to gauge as to what exactly is going on, or manifest next.
If social media rumors of Immigration and Customs Enforcement setting up camp outside popular grocery stores in New Jersey to entrap Indian illegal residents turned out to be fake news, then similar rumors of enforcement in some areas of Devon Avenue in Chicago, as well as rounding up of illegal aliens in the Indo-Caribbean community in Queens, New York, were true. Rumors of Indians on H-1B visa and F1 visa facing a hard time getting back into the country was juxtaposed with news of the Travel Ban that affected nationals from seven countries.
In a dystopian reality of two falsehoods morphing for every truth, it’s been hard for immigrants, even Green Card holders from India, to have no qualms traveling overseas. Many lawyers and universities have issued notices to immigrants to carry documentation to prove their status even when flying domestically within the United States.
I asked eminent immigration attorney Prakash Khatri, who now runs his eponymous law firm based in Bethesda, Maryland, to clarify if it’s okay for Indians to travel overseas or not, or to heed to caution. From July 2003 until March 2008, Khatri was a federal employee. He served as the first Ombudsman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in the then newly-formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
According to Khatri, while most Green Card holders from India should not have any travel apprehensions, those who have been overseas for more than six months, need to file for a “reentry permit”.
“Green Card holders who have not filed for a “reentry permit” are more likely to be scrutinized, especially if they have been overseas for more than six months. Even with a reentry permit, Green Card holders need to understand that they can only have one residence (in the United States). They cannot maintain two residences. They must be visiting the overseas location and maintain “residence” in the United States,” Khatri said via e-mail, on a flight to India.
It’s a different scenario, however, for visa workers from India, according to Khatri. They are going to face more scrutiny at the US border, especially those on H-1B visa and L-1 visa.
“While any Indian on a visa should be fine, there is likely to be more scrutiny on visa holders who may be on work visas such as H-1B or L-1 visas,” said Khatri. “My main concern is for genuinely qualified H-1B visa holders who may have, on the advice of a consultant, added extra experience or qualifications even though the actual experience and qualifications were sufficient. For many years, USCIS, Customs and Border Protection and the Embassies/Consulates did not have the resources to check all listed experience and qualifications but due to the large amount of “fraud investigation” fees paid by H-1B visa and L-1 visa petitioners, both USCIS and the Consulates have substantially increased fraud investigators.”
Khatri added: “That combined with a strict “enforcement” attitude at the Ports of Entry dramatically increase the chance of workers having problems. We have seen an increased effort as reflected by the high Request for Evidence (RFE) rate by USCIS, the increased “administrative processing” at Consulates and the number of persons stopped for “secondary screenings” at Ports of Entry. The Trump Executive Orders and the recent implementing directives by the Department of Homeland Security will only add to the additional scrutiny.”
Khatri also said that the immigration enforcement drive against illegal aliens, including from India, will be bigger soon, than by the previous Obama administration.
“Based on the most recent directives by the Secretary of DHS on February 21st, there is no doubt that they (illegal aliens) should be worried. It should be noted that the priority is still going to be criminals. However, unlike in the past, ICE officers will not be able to look the other way when someone is apprehended,” said Khatri. “With an estimated 11 million or more illegal immigrants in this country, Congress will have to appropriate substantial additional resources including thousands of new enforcement officers. It will take years to remove so many people. The key is to stay out of trouble since most apprehensions will still be people who come into contact with law enforcement for the wrong reasons.”
There’s also fear among legal residents that rules and regulations on travel could change in a jiffy, especially if there is a terrorist attack in the United States, and an Indian national is complicit in such an attack.
For all the talk of a Travel Ban directed at seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen – the fact remains that India have the most number of Muslims in the world, except Indonesia and Pakistan. Numbering almost 180 million, Muslims comprise almost 14.4 percent of India’s total population and 11 percent of the total Muslim population globally. In comparison, Muslims comprise less than 1 percent of the US population and around 6 percent of Europe’s population.
A scrutiny of Trump’s Executive Orders show nothing in particular for Indian legal residents traveling overseas – barring the seven Muslim-majority countries. However, one section in an Executive Order passed on January 27th, ‘Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States’, would be of concern to Indians: ‘In the first 30 days, DHS will perform a global country-by-country review of the information each country provides when their citizens apply for a U.S. visa or immigration benefit. Countries will then have 60 days to comply with any requests from the U.S. government to update or improve the quality of the information they provide.’
Anybody who has traveled to the US from airports in New Delhi or Mumbai are aware of the stringent security screenings that take place before boarding an aircraft. However, all that would be to no avail, if there is a terrorist attack in the US, and an Indian national is implicated. The US would be harsh in its treatment of all Indian legal residents thereafter. The US could also bar all visitors from India for 60 days or more, to assess the security risk when allowing legal residents and visitors.
A call from News India Times to the USCIS was not immediately returned.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)