In the absence of any word from the government of India regarding opening up of the airspace and resuming international air travel, hundreds of NRIs with the US work visas are a distressed lot.
Every time she is on a FaceTime video call with her daughter Aarya, Priyanka Reddy breaks down invariably. She cannot hold her tears back when all that the four-year-old wants to know is when would her mother return home. As she is uncertain of her return, the daughter complains of the food prepared by the father and how she cannot manage the chores without her. Priyanka consoles the daughter and tells her bed-time stories before proceeding to continue her work from home.
Priyanka is one of the many NRIs stuck in India in the wake of a COVID crisis. Currently, at her mother’s home in Hyderabad, she is unable to go back to California, San Francisco. She continues to partially support her project but citing legalities, her HR has told her clearly that it cannot continue for long.
While possible loss of employment, existing financial burdens like loans, mortgages, lease agreements; and debts possibly arising out of the loss of income, are a major cause of worry, the lockdown-induced travel ban has left many separated from their families.
The latest executive order from President Trump’s administration, which also states that non-immigrant visas such as H-1B will be reviewed after 30 days, has only added fuel to fire amid the global Covid-19 crisis. They feel they are only a step away from losing jobs if they do not make it back on time.
An online petition “Start international flights in India” on change.org has garnered over 5400 signatures as of April 24. On Twitter, hashtags #IndiaResumeOutboundFlights2US, #OutboundFlightsFromIndiaNOW, and #PeopleCameInNeed2GoBack have been trending.
Says Priyanka, “My husband is doing everything possible to keep our daughter calm. I have been living in the US for 10 years now. I have everything at stake back in the US. But if I cannot get back soon, I might lose my job.” She came to Hyderabad on March 5 and was scheduled to return on March 29.
Life has taken such an unexpected turn that Sharavana Kumar in Chennai can blame only his fate and wait for a word from the government. Kumar, his 30-week pregnant wife, and their five-year-old US-born daughter had come to Chennai for his brother’s wedding.
“We could not miss the wedding and had her delivery planned in the US. Her doctor is over there. In Chennai, we have not been able to get a doctor so far. Our return tickets for March 24 has been rescheduled four times. Also, she would not be able to travel back after the 33rd week of pregnancy,” says Kumar, an H1B visa holder, and resident of North Carolina.
While Kumar and family had come home for his brother’s wedding, K Sindhuja had returned to Hyderabad for her own wedding. Sindhuja has been living in Baltimore, Maryland, for the last seven years. While the husband had to travel back a week after the wedding in February, she decided to stay back for a month.
“I just got married and I am on unpaid leave in Hyderabad with my husband in Dallas, Texas,” says Sindhuja. She was to fly back on March 29 and join work. “I work on a project for the State of Maryland. They do not allow work from home. It is going to be a problem if I do not get back soon,” adds Sindhuja whose H1B visa expires in September 2020.
Karimnagar-native Samtha Reddy is on an extended loss-of-pay vacation back home after living in the US for nine years. “My manager has been kind enough to extend my date of return. But now I am not even in a position to give a tentative date of return. Apart from all the stress, she is burdened with payments for utilities from her savings,” says Samtha who works for an insurance company. After spending a month, she was scheduled to return to Michigan on March 23. “My husband and I had just started living together. With great difficulty, he could finally move to Michigan. And now, I am not sure about my job if I can’t make it by June,” she rues.
Job is at stake for Swetha Shivankar, too, who is at home in Mumbai after two years. She works in Atlanta and was scheduled to head back on April 5. She says, “My client is in essential business but I cannot work from here. My visa is going to expire by the end of October. Before President Trump announces more reforms, I want to be back so that I can file for the extension of visa before October.”
Like many in her situation, she is worried about her outstanding payments and loss of income during her time in India. “We respect the lockdown but our request is to let us leave. The government should allow out-bound flights and let visa holders too in evacuation flights,” she says.
Agreeing with Swetha, Samtha says the government should at least announce a date for resuming air travel. “If we could give tentative dates to our organisations, I think they would understand. At the moment, it is nothing but uncertainty,” she says. Sindhuja too reminds the US government has no restrictions for VISA holders coming into the country. “We have completed our quarantine here. There is no harm in letting us travel. Only the Indian government can help us now,” she says. All of them have been tweeting regularly tagging the prime minister, his office, the minister for external affairs, the minister for aviation, and others.
Priyanka, Sindhuja, Swetha, and Samtha, are all part of a WhatsApp group of NRIs who have come together to highlight the plight of NRIs stranded in India and build pressure on the government to open international travel.
According to Tejaswi Chinnam, who has been living in the US with her husband for over two years now, at least 500 US visa holders are stuck in India because of the lockdown. “With such a rapid rise in cases in the US, I am worried about my husband in Detroit, Michigan. He is alone and does not even know cooking,” says Tejaswi, who came to Vijayawada on vacation to be with her parents.
She says the emotional and financial stress of being separated from families has started to affect their mental and physical well being. “A few flights are evacuating US citizens from India. We request the government to consider arranging flights for Visa holders too. We are willing to pay the airlines for the roundtrip,” she adds.
Unlike others, Sharvani Deshpande’s trip to Hyderabad was not planned. It was an emergency visit after her father expired on March 5. She has been living in St Louis, Missouri for over four years now. After completing her masters, she has been doing a contractual job with a work permit on her F1 student visa. It was only recently she received confirmation of her job as a cloud engineer and had made arrangements for her parents’ vacation in the US.
“When I came to Hyderabad, I did not think there was a crisis here. I wanted to spend a few more days and support my mother. I am stuck here now. My work permit is expiring in July. My job is at risk if I don’t make it soon. I have to pay my loan and lease too. Even to apply for another job, we should be there in the US,” she laments. Sharvani says she has booked her return flight thrice using her credit card and is yet to get at least Rs 7 lakh as a refund from the airline companies. “Let the Indian government allow at least essential travel,” she says.
The slot for booking return tickets is open only from July 1, says Kalyan Gudivada who has been living in Dallas, Texas since 2008, and is currently in Hyderabad on a vacation with family. After having rescheduled his return flight five times, Kalyan who is an H1B visa holder is worried more after President Trump’s executive order. “The President has asked the immigration teams to put a plan for non-immigrant H1B, L1, F1 visa holders by May 23. I wanted to be back before that day when some decision is announced. Both my daughters are US citizens and we want Indian government’s help to go back home,” says Kalyan, who feels not only his job, his existence is at risk.
However, Samtha Reddy believes that H1B is a sensitive subject, and Trump may not take any call on it soon. “But we are still worried as the administration could take other channels to stop us at the port of entry. I have been working with my company for four years. I need to at least tell them a tentative day of my return,” she rues.
Stuck in Chennai without the certainty of date of return to North Carolina in the US, Barath Somasundaram and family is in a similar situation as others if they don’t reach back home in time for an extension of visa. They had come to Chennai for his brother’s wedding. “My four-year-old son is a US citizen. They allowed him to go back along with one parent. How is that even practical?,” asks Barath, an H1B visa holder, asking for the Indian government’s intervention. His visa is to expire in three months. “If it expires, I may have to start all over again. I have a home, car and other loans to pay in the US. My job is at stake. And I don’t want to be a defaulter and never be able to go back,” he adds.
Desperate to return to the US, all of them equivocally request the Indian government to open outbound international travel for a couple of weeks, or at least announce a date for the same to end the prevailing uncertainty in their lives.
However, the president of American Telugu Association (ATA), Parmesh Bheemreddy, reiterates that anyone with a valid visa need not worry about his/her return to the US. “Everyone in the US is working from home. It does not matter if they work from here or from India. Technically nothing is stopping them from returning. Once the travel opens, there should not be an issue, unless anything changes,” he says. Section six of the executive order signed by President Trump, he agrees, does indicate that non-immigrant visas including the new H1B visas may be stopped in the future. “I think that will be temporary if it happens,” he adds.
As of April 22, the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (RGIA) Hyderabad has handled 10 evacuation flights serving over 750 foreign nationals who were repatriated by various special relief flights from Hyderabad city to the countries viz. the UK, the UAE, the US, and Germany.
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