This week the fate of thousands of Indians, now stranded in the United States, hangs in the balance. Their return to India, now depends on talks between the Indian government and the US administration as US President Donald Trump has said he will order visa sanctions on countries that don’t take back illegal “aliens” in the U.S. As reported in The Hindu, the situation is not as simple as just arranging a flight to bring all Indians back from the US. At the moment, India has restricted all passengers, including Indian citizens from any other country, to fly into India as a part of the measures undertaken to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DCGA) had issued an advisory stating that “it has been decided that all scheduled international commercial passenger services shall remain closed until 1830 hours (GMT) of April 14, 2020.” However, the restriction will not apply to international all-cargo operations and flights approved by DGCA, reported Business Traveler. This extended date was announced as soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a national lockdown.
If Washington refuses to relent on its seven-day deadline, or New Delhi refuses to lift the ban, yet another diplomatic crisis threatens to unfold. Many of the stranded Indians are now in the US “illegally” as their valid Visas have expired just as the travel bans came into place once the Coronavirus started spreading. Some of them are there without much information and instead called their colleagues back home to raise the issue. A case in point is a Gurgaon resident Neetu Garg who posted this on Twitter recently (sic), “received 2 phone calls from US today from colleague/friend who are in US on H1B. Colleague’s visa got expired, expected to travel back on 27th Mar but couldn’t because of flight ban and now illegal migrant. How govt tackling same.”
She said other friends called and told her that he/she has a visa till June but is stranded and has not been paid as well as he was on furlough, and some more feared they would be laid off and there was no new hiring in the current scenario. “Another phone call was when friend having visa till June but his client stopped giving billing, went to furlough and company gave shout out of paying for hardly few days ahead. In peculiar situation, & wish to come back India. Unfortunate situation as their whole life is on hold, already aware that about tk fired as on H-1B visa. Normally, they have a 60-day grace period in which to find another job but who is hiring in current situation?(sic), ” she added, and marked her posts to the Prime Minister (who she says follows her on Twitter) and others .
Recieved 2 phone calls from US today from colleague/friend who are in US on H1B.
— Neetu Garg (@NeetuGarg6) April 9, 2020
According to The Hindu’s report, the Indian government is “engaged” in talks with the US administration to reconsider President Donald Trump’s orders to impose visa sanctions on countries that don’t take back illegal “aliens” in the US within a week.” The report went on to explain that if the US did not extend the deadline or if India did not lift the ban on travel into India, “Indians could face a major cut in US visas granted this year.”
According to a report in the New York Times, most Indian ‘illegals’ in the US, were ‘overstayers’. “Of the roughly 3.5 million undocumented immigrants who entered the country between 2010 and 2017, 65 percent arrived with full permission stamped into their passports, according to new figures compiled by the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank. During that period, more overstayers arrived from India than from any other country,” writes Miriam Jordan in her December 2019 report for The New York Times.
“Many undocumented Asians — including a large number from India — have settled like the Ohs in and around Sunnyvale, about 50 miles southeast of San Francisco, according to the Center for Migration Studies analysis… Some of them stay on as independent programming contractors after their visas have expired or after leaving a company that sponsored them for a visa. But they are only part of the story. Many undocumented Indians here in Sunnyvale have low-skilled service jobs, catering to their well-heeled brethren who frequent the Indian supermarkets, eateries and clothing shops that line El Camino Real, the main commercial corridor.” This report now seems prophetic as apart from the IT segments many other Indians, now in the US on expired papers face a diplomatic crisis that has stemmed from the Coronavirus pandemic, and the unplanned lockdown in effect in India since March, and most likely to be extended further.
According to the portal Work Permit, the Indian government had already requested a stay extension for H1B visa holders, due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has left them stranded and without jobs in the US. “The US State Department has forwarded India’s request for the extension of visas for Indians in America to the US Department of Homeland Security. The increase in the number of people being laid off due to coronavirus is affecting Indians as well. The largest percentage of US visa holders with H1B visas are Indians. There have been high level talks between the US and India about the coronavirus pandemic. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and US President Donald Trump had talks about this and other issues on 4 April.”
They hesitated to answer questions, beyond saying that they had entered as tourists. One of them said that he had come on a student visa that had expired.
As the NYTimes report says, it is difficult to keep track of visa overstayers under normal circumstances. “Many of those who overstay their visas do not intend to stay illegally,” the report quotes Kalpana Peddibhotla, an immigration lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area, “They stay because they built their lives here, bought homes here, had children here.”
Meanwhile, the United States has so far repatriated around 1,300 Americans from India, reported the Press Trust of India adding that a senior US official has said,
“A considerable number of them are developing cold feet in flying back home.”