U.S. travel ban leaves many high skilled workers stranded in India and families frantic in U.S.

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A patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) receives treatment inside the casualty ward at a hospital in New Delhi, India, May 1, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Neha Mahajan, co-founder of Skilled Immigrants in America, is at the end of her tether personally.

Usually, a stoic fighter who has championed the cause of high skilled workers on H-1B and H-4 spouse visas, Mahajan broke down while relating her travails which center around a tragic Covid-19 death in the family, her husband’visa woes, her injury, and her two daughters.

As if it was not enough that India is going through the worst phase of the Covid-19 pandemic to date, with the diaspora on tenterhooks, another twist has been added with the U.S. travel ban on India starting May 4, 2021.

On April 17, 2021, Mahajan’s husband went to India as doctors informed him his father was critically ill from Covid-19. Her husband is an H-1B visa holder in the U.S. who applied for the green card back in 2012 and is still waiting nearly a decade later, Neha Mahajan told News India Times.

He is stuck in India even though he has an exemption from the travel ban on India imposed by the Biden administration effective May 4, 2021, applying to non-immigrants. He has to have his passport stamped with the visa and no U.S. Consulate is open to do that at this moment, Mahajan says.

“I am worried sick,” Mahajan said. Her husband is exempt from the travel ban because the couple has a child who is a U.S. citizen under 21. But the work visa has to be stamped every three years in the passport. In Mahajan’s husband’s case, he had gotten valid extensions over and above the 3 year rule, from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, for that visa stamp through the period of the Trump administration. Then the pandemic hit, further impeding travel.  Her father-in-law’s illness forced her husband to leave for India, which meant he had to get the visa stamped before returning.

“If the system was fair, he would have got his green card by now,” notes Mahajan. She has been trying every avenue to bring him back, including writing to U.S. Senator Cory Booker, reaching out to the Indian Consulate. All to no avail so far.

Mahajan luckily has a full-time job, but she has not slept a wink since April 17, what with holding down that fulltime job, taking care of two children, and not yet recovered from a major accident last September which has her still not fully mobile. All the pressures could affect her own mental health.

“How is it that no U.S. Consulate is open in India to stamp his passport, and there is no waiver of the stamp,” she questions, adding, “The same documents that a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration officer checks in India are again checked on arrival in the U.S. Why can’t they be checked just in the U.S. on arrival and the stamp in India waived?”

“If you have to actually get a visa stamped, that has been a problem already (even before the travel ban)” because U.S. Consulates are functioning blow par during the pandemic, notes Greg Siskind, an immigration attorney with Siskind Susser PC, put part of the blame for delays of this kind on the State Department’s archaic modus operandi. While virtually all other departments including USCIS, have updated their technology with a considerable amount of work being handled online, the State Department has lagged.

“The State has not adapted their procedures,” Siskind says, including not letting officers access accounts online, and requiring them to be available in person. Today, immigration estimates there may be a backlog of one million green card applicants, different from the State Department estimate of some 470,000 in January 2021.

Siskind was also critical of the “very vague information” emanating from the State Department, on things like the National Interest Exemption. “We have gotten very poor information from the last administration and this one, part of the reason being the current administration is still filling the posts. “But that’s not an excuse. There are enough career professionals” to carry out the job, Siskind says.

His firm which filed a class action lawsuit against the State Department in March (Kinsley v Blinken), will be submitting an amendment after May 4, adding India to the list of countries. The lawsuit challenges whether bans are even legal going by the Constitution.

There are many people like Mahajan and her husband and many more who did not travel to India to see their immediate family stricken by Covid. She knows because she hears from them all the time on her social media accounts asking her what to do and relating their stories.

“They had to choose between letting their parents die or risking not getting the stamp (for re-entry into the U.S.),” she says. She has been a sort of guiding light because of her activism in the Indian high-skilled workers community.

She notes that families like hers and those of so many H-1B visa holders, are not a priority in the midst of what looks like a dire situation in India, and Washington’s priorities for its own citizens.

“We don’t even come into the equation. It’s like we’ve been left in the middle of nowhere to fend for ourselves,” Mahajan says.

“People are calling me left, right and center for help. I don’t even have the bandwidth to deal with these – there are some cases where both parents are dead from Covid; a case where a wife who does not speak English is here on her own with her kids.

Travel Ban Details

The travel ban does not bode well even for new H-1Bs or essential healthcare workers. Siskind noted the following in a tweet May 1: “About 1/10 of doctors who will be new residents in teaching hospitals in the US are Indian MDs who are supposed to arrive next month. Today’s bar on visa issuance for Indian nationals could have disastrous effects on the US health care system if those 2K doctors don’t arrive.”

President Biden’s proclamation suspending travel directly from India to the U.S. which goes into effect for non-immigrants on May 4, in effect means that Indian citizens on H-1B’s, L1’s and other non-immigrant visas physically present in India will have to travel to another country for 14 days before traveling to the U.S., Suskind says.

The travel ban does not apply to permanent residents (green card holders), U.S. Citizens, spouses of U.S. citizens, parents of U.S. citizens and permanent resident children (unmarried and under age 21), as Siskind’s lawfirm details on its website.

It also does not apply to siblings of U.S. citizens or permanent residents if both are under 21.

Children of U.S. citizens (including foster children and prospective adoptees) are exempt from the ban as well. So are travelers coming to U.S. by invitation of the U.S. government, diplomats, NATO members, UN members, non-citizen members of the military and their families, or those granted a National Interest Exception (NIE) travel waiver.

The order says it will be reviewed every 30-days by the Secretary of Health and Human Services and be modified or terminated as is warranted by the COVID-19 conditions in India, Siskind’s website details, and has provided an app to help those facing issues: https://gsiskind.app.law/travel-ban-advisor-2021-updated-522021

“For those of your employees that have valid visas in their passports, it would be prudent to try and leave India by Monday (May 3) or make plans to spend at least 14 days in another unrestricted country on the way back,” Siskind Susser PC advised on its website. “We strongly advise that Indian national employees currently in the US who would not be subject to one of the exceptions listed above not travel to India until the travel restriction is lifted.”

The advice is too late for Mahajan’s husband who has been in India since his father passed away in the 3rd week of April when the travel ban was yet to be announced.

Meanwhile, despite the travel ban, the U.S. continues to send aid to India, the equivalent of $100 million in the first tranche.

USAID India Tweeted the following May 2, 2021:

@usaid_india “#JustArrived! The 4th flight in three days from the American people to India. With enough Remdesivir to provide 20,000 rounds of life-saving therapeutics, this emergency relief shipment will combat COVID-19 and save lives. Thanks @united for transporting! #USIndiaDosti twitter.com/usandindia/sta…”

The new restrictions on travel from India were put in place on the advice of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and were imposed because of the surge in India.

Similar travel bans were placed in January on travelers from South Africa, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 countries in Europe that allow travel across open borders, Reuters reported adding that China and Iran are also both covered by the policy.

However, Indian citizens are probably among the most affected by the travel ban as they form the largest number of H-1B visa holders in the U.S. Those holding L-1, J-1, and B1/Bw2, will also face problems, according to immigration experts.

Johnson L. Myalil, an immigration attorney in Reston, Virginia, told Americanbazaaronline.com that hundreds of Indian nationals on various work visas are currently in India.

“When the Covid situation stabilized in the United States, many visa holders went to India to apply for stamping their visas that were extended, assuming that the pandemic is under control in India. They are now stuck in India, as tickets for flight before Tuesday are not available,” Myalil told Americanbazaaronline.

Meanwhile, many other countries have also placed travel bans on India, including Australia and even Nigeria.

As of May 1, India’s daily Covid-19 cases passed 400,000, Reuters reported.

(Updated on May 3, 2021)

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