'Illegal' in the US during COVID-19: Indians forced to self-deport amid a pandemic

Many have been living in the US for years, building homes and settling down, only to see it crumble overnight during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Forty-three-year-old Subramaniam (name changed) moved to the United States on June 29, 2014. Close to eight months later on February 9, 2015, his wife and two children moved to Chicago with him. Subramaniam had managed to secure a H-1B visa, which allows companies to hire high-skilled foreign workers. 

"Our elder child was 10 years old and our younger one was four at the time. Our life was going on smoothly and we even bought a new home in one of the suburbs in June last year," says Lakshmi (name changed), Subramaniam's wife.  

Last month, the family received a shock as Subramaniam had a severe cardiac arrest shortly after eating lunch and was rushed to the hospital but passed away. "We are yet to come to terms with it,” says Lakshmi, but even as she and her kids are processing their grief, they are forced to upstage their lives. 

“Since we are on a dependent H4 visa, we have to immediately leave the country,” Lakshmi says. A H4 visa is issued to dependent family members (spouse and children) of H-1B visa holders.

“We confirmed with our Embassy that there is a 60-day grace period but getting out during the pandemic is scary," she adds.

Like Lakshmi, several Indians – either direct H-1B visa holders or those dependent on them – are forced to 'self-deport' during the COVID-19 pandemic due to layoffs or deaths in the family. Many of them have been living in the US for years, building homes and settling down while waiting in a long queue for a Green Card, which would allow them to permanently live and work in the country. 

While some have lost their family members during the pandemic, others have lost their livelihood. 

Venkat (name changed) was working in a product company and was living in Edison, New Jersey. He had moved to the US in April 2011, but was fired in April this year during the coronavirus pandemic as companies were forced to downsize.

"It was an unexpected meeting with my supervisor and soon, the Human Resources department joined the call. An entire team who were working from home were laid off, and they cited the economic slump as the reason," the 37-year-old who hails from Vellore in Tamil Nadu says.

Though H-1B visa holders pay taxes, they are not entitled to unemployment benefits like Green Card holders. Venkat now has 60 days to find another job in order to transfer his work visa to a new employer or has to deport himself as he would turn 'illegal'. 

"I have been applying to various jobs but the job market is not good and there is a hiring freeze. There are layoffs everywhere. I will have to book a flight to leave but even then it feels unsafe to travel," Venkat adds. 

A clogged system

Many feel that skilled workers and their families are often left in the lurch because of the long waiting list for a Green Card among H-1B visa holders. Many of them have to wait for years, before their application comes up. 

In March this year, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report highlighted the severity of the backlog and said that Indians may have to wait for decades to get the Green Card as the number of foreign workers sponsored by employers each year exceeds the annual allocation by the Federal government.

"Had the issues raised by people on the non-immigrant visa issue and Green Card backlog been addressed earlier, many people would not be in the situation that they find themselves in today. Red tape has been an impediment," says Karthik R, who is helping Indians in the US who find themselves in such situations and also participates in advocacy groups.

"The backlog is adding to the problem. Since the H-1B is sponsored by the employer, job mobility is not easy. Some people have to wait months for the transfer, even after beginning work at their new job with a receipt confirming that they have shifted companies," he adds. 

Many Indians have also been pushing for a legislation titled 'S-386', or Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, which would remove the per-country cap of 7% on the number of Green Cards issued to skilled workers.

Advocacy groups, including the High Skilled Immigrants for America, argue that as Indians and Chinese are the highest number of H-1B visa migrants, the present system is the reason that they wait for years for a Green Card.

The CRS report too, had highlighted the issue, stating that, "Maintaining the seven percent per-country ceiling would substantially increase the already long wait times for Indian and Chinese nationals, but it would continue to allow those from elsewhere to receive Green Cards relatively quickly."

As per data by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, 42,370 Green Card requests were pending as of 2019, of which 8,233 were Indian and 6,223 were Chinese nationals.

"It's time to revisit the law and change it according to current situations. I had applied for a Green Card in 2015. I feel the per country quota needs to be revised. They should find a way for high skilled workers to continue pursuing professional opportunities here as there is a demand from corporates as well," says Venkat.

"The Bill solves the portion of the issue. It will help but the Green Card backlog is not going to vanish overnight. There is a long queue. It's the first step in the right direction," Karthik says. 

However, the Bill has been stalled in the Senate, and senators have said that there will be no voting on it for now. 

"There is also the challenge that it may not pass. There is no bipartisan effort to back it and there may be blockades against the bill for various reasons," Karthik admits.

The US government may also need to take drastic measures to combat the economic slump. 

As of last month, four top Republican senators have also urged US President Donald Trump to suspend all new visas, including the H-1B, until unemployment figures return to normal levels in the country. The US recorded over 20 million job losses in April, and another 8.33 million are expected to be reported for May, reports say. "Temporarily suspending the issuance of new H-1B visas would also protect the hundreds of thousands of H-1B workers and their families already working in the United States – workers who could otherwise be subject to deportation if they are laid off for more than 60 days," they argued.

The Trump administration has been citing the pandemic to aggressively push for policies that would make immigration for work into the country more difficult. 

In April, Donald Trump issued a Presidential Proclamation that suspended the entry of immigrants for a period of 60 days.

"We must be mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in an environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor," the proclamation stated.

It also asked for a review of the policies and a report with appropriate recommendations to "stimulate the United States economy and ensure the prioritisation, hiring, and employment of United States workers." 

"The immigration system requires an overhaul. Countries like Canada and Australia have dynamically changed their system to adapt to the 21st century. In the US, many rules and regulations haven't changed in years. If those are changed, then it will make a significant difference," Karthik says. 

Re-building back home

With their time on US soil running out, many who leave the country feel that they may not return as their lives, built over several years, have crumbled overnight.

"I never thought it would come to this. I thought everything would be smooth and I would get my Green Card soon. I didn't think I'd end up with this burden," says Venkat, who plans to return home and pursue a job in India. 

"I was about to close a housing deal. I have a car, TV and many home appliances. I have to start seeing what I can do about these things. I booked a repatriation flight, but they are prioritising people and so far I haven't gotten any call," he adds. 

For Lakshmi, her husband's death has meant that she will return to his native place of Namakkal in Tamil Nadu and restart her life there. 

"We have a lot of belongings that my friends are helping out with. It is difficult. My husband and I had been in Chennai for 10 years and when we moved to the US, it was a big leap for us," she says, hoping that she finds a job back home and is able to raise her children. 

"There is no other choice," she adds.

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