They worked in the U.S. on visas. But coronavirus and Trump’s new order split these Indian families apart
Last March, Poorva Dixit booked an emergency flight to her native India to visit her ailing mother. The trip was supposed to be quick: She’d left behind her family in the East Bay, where Dixit and her husband, both software engineers, have lived for more than a decade while working on H-1B visas.
She didn’t imagine the twin hurdles that would keep her from returning to California: a global pandemic and a new executive order by the Trump administration that has restricted the flow of highly skilled workers into the country, separated families and sown confusion.
Now, Dixit is one of hundreds of H-1B and similar visa workers — many from the Indian subcontinent — who are stranded abroad, uncertain when they’ll get back to the United States.
“I’ve already lost my mom, and now I have been kept away from my motherhood,” the 37-year-old said. “It’s the worst nightmare that I could ever have dreamt up.”
The executive order, which will stay in effect at least until the end of this year, is the latest sweeping effort by the Trump administration to curtail legal immigration. Last month, the White House expanded a measure severely restricting visas being issued to temporary foreign employees, many of whom work in California in specialized technology jobs.
The H-1B applies not only to software engineers, but also to other high-skilled workers such as doctors, lawyers, architects and academics. The order also affects H-2B visas, for seasonal employees; L-1 visas, for corporate executives; and J-1 visas, for scholars and exchange programs.
Administration officials estimated the move would “protect” more than 500,000 jobs amid the pandemic. But many employers in the tech industry and entrepreneurs say that there is no evidence to back the claim that immigrants have taken jobs from Americans who’ve been thrown out of work because of the virus.
The proclamation provides exemptions, such as those for many potential agricultural, healthcare and food industry workers. It does not change the status of immigrants already in the United States.
“There is a reason why we have the H-1 visa system — it’s so we can bring people who have the skills not available here in the U.S. to this country,” said Chris Hopfensperger, executive director of Software.org, a nonpartisan research organization based in Washington, D.C., that aims to help policymakers understand software’s effect on the economy and society. “H-1B is not an industry where you see U.S. workers being displaced. If anything, by bringing them, we are creating more jobs in the U.S.”
The visa ban has left workers confused about their next steps. Indian nationals compose 75% of H-1B visa applications, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The current annual cap for H-1B visas sits at 65,000, with 20,000 additional visas available for those who earn a master’s degree or doctorate from a U.S. institution.
The ban stands to affect tech businesses in the U.S., especially those in Northern California and Silicon Beach that hire H-1B visa workers from around the world.
“It’s not just Google and Facebook competing for these people; it’s everybody in the economy. It’s Ford Motor Co. and Boeing — all these companies transforming digitally — they need them too,” said Todd McKinnon, co-founder of Okta, a San Francisco-based cloud identity provider. “So how do we make sure these awesome American companies stay competitive? I don’t think the answer is telling these people to stay home.”
For Dixit, what was supposed to be a temporary separation from family has become long term. She has been able to work remotely, picking up overnight shifts to match West Coast hours, and regularly speaks with her husband over the phone. He’s been forced to work from home due to the coronavirus, she said, and now has to manage their girls in quarantine while being a single parent.
“I had hoped I would be able to get my visa stamped and go home,” Dixit said.
While she works, Dixit keeps one headphone plugged in for her kids, who tell her that they like to be able to hear her voice — even if she is just speaking to her colleagues.
“My kids are going into depression. They are skipping meals,” she said. “My 3-year-old, she doesn’t understand what is going on. She keeps asking when I am coming back. I have no answer.”
Research shows that immigrants strengthen the economy and typically don’t compete with U.S.-born workers for jobs or lower their wages. Most employment-based immigration to the United States already requires a labor market test to demonstrate there’s no available U.S. citizen to fill the position, and many of the affected industries, as well as Trump officials themselves, have advocated for more immigration, not less.
H-1B workers earn high wages, and often move to the United States when they are young, meaning they contribute to the economy through paying taxes and spending for many years, said Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics and director of the Global Migration Center at UC Davis. Cutting them out of the economy could have harmful effects in the long run, he said, while also failing to increase employment for Americans.
“These visas target high-skilled people, people who innovate, people in science and tech,” Peri said. “This will reduce U.S. companies’ and labs’ ability to generate growth and productivity, and the ability of the economy to grow.”
Foreign workers’ jobs are related to their American colleagues’ work, he said. If a company hires a handful of H-1B workers for a new team, it will also hire Americans for other complementary jobs. And if companies decide to hire the same workers that they would have brought to the U.S. prior to the visa ban, but allow them to work in countries such as India or Canada, additional American jobs could be lost, Peri added.
Immigration attorney Greg Siskind said that his inbox has been overwhelmed with stories of families who have been separated by the new order. Hundreds of thousands of people will be affected, he said -- especially workers from India, who are hit by both the proclamation and a clogged green card application system that has left more than 500,000 Indian nationals renewing their visas instead of becoming permanent residents.
“With the backlog, the rules are normally that you get six years on a H-1B visa. But if you have a green card application pending, you can extend it out three years at a time,” he said. “And Indians have backlogs where the waits are 40 to 50 years long.”
As a result, he said, many of the workers who are currently affected by the order may be those who have applied for green cards but have been unable to become residents because of an encumbered system. The long wait is due in part to caps that were placed before the tech boom of the 1990s drew a large influx of Indian workers to the U.S.
At the same time, caps on new H-1B issuances have not changed for 16 years, even though those workers are in high demand from U.S. employers, Peri, the professor, added.
Businesses and tech industry groups immediately pushed back against extending the ban following the Trump administration’s announcement, arguing that the move will stymie economic recovery rather than spark growth. At least one immigration activist group has said that it is looking to challenge the order with a lawsuit.
While the tussle continues, visa applicants wait anxiously on the other side of the world. Some said that they have reached out to state and federal officials for help but have not heard back.
Dharmendra dashed for a flight to India in February after he learned his father had died. He traveled alone, while his wife looked after their 4-year-old-son.
“I didn’t want my son to miss therapy and so I said, ‘You stay here,’” said Dharmendra, who wanted to be identified by his first name only for fear of putting his visa at risk.
He has lived in the U.S. for nearly eight years and applied for his green card in 2014. He doesn’t expect to receive it until decades from now.
“My appointment to stamp my visa was March 16, but coronavirus started,” the software engineer said. “My wife can’t drive. My son is special needs and can’t speak. My wife is in mental stress. I thought when COVID would go down, I would get an appointment. Now it’s not until December. What do I need to do?”
Dharmendra stays awake until 3 a.m., he says, so he can speak to his wife. He does his best to keep her spirits high, but he fears her mental health is at risk.
“I don’t want her to be lonely. Sometimes she’s crying and it’s hard for me,” he said. “I can’t describe how we’re doing right now.”
The 40-year-old said he has been speaking with attorneys to determine whether he can come back sooner. He plans on fighting.
Srinivas Repala has been separated from his wife and three sons since February, when he traveled from Seattle to India to attend his grandmother’s funeral.
Like others, his consulate appointment to get a visa stamped was canceled because of the pandemic. A technology specialist, he is working remotely for now but doesn’t know whether his employer will allow him to work from India once his counterparts in the U.S. go back to working in offices.
Repala said that when he learned of the executive order last month, he felt depressed.
“My family is in the same mode. My kids are crying,” the 38-year-old said. “They say, ‘Papa, I’m really missing you.’ ”
He talks to his family each day over the phone or on FaceTime, and tries to explain to his 10-year-old and 6-year-old twins why he can’t come home. He’s found himself educating his children on visas and the immigration system much sooner than he’d expected.
“Each day, years of hard work and family is at risk if I don’t go back,” he said.
Dixit, the software engineer, said she feels guilty being away for so long. She missed her daughter’s sixth birthday.
“My husband said my kids grew five inches,” she said, her voice shaking. “It breaks my heart to have missed those five inches of them growing up.”
A few days ago, she saw that her eldest had taken a family portrait that she’d drawn before Dixit left for India and stuck it on the fridge of their Northern California home. In it, the family stands flanking a bright pink house under a blue sky, one daughter standing next to each parent.
The little girl had covered Dixit’s body with a large giraffe magnet that reads “Hakuna Matata.”
“I call it, ‘And they lived sadly ever after,’” she told her mother.
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