For the more than 2.7 million Indian immigrants who have taken root in the United States, President Joe Biden’s decision to ban most travel from their home country as the health system collapses amid a spate of coronavirus cases comes at a price .
The ban, which went into effect on May 4th, is similar to the ban on travelers from countries like China and the UK. But Indians who have lived in the US for years told Vox that due to the ban and visa processing delays, they were stranded abroad, were not allowed to bring their family over, and were unable to travel to India to to care for or grieve for their parents because they fear that they will not be able to return. (The names were changed to protect their immigration cases.)
There are strict exceptions for American citizens and green card holders, their spouses, minor children or siblings, and the parents of citizens or green card holders who are younger than 21 years of age. However, people who do not fall into these categories are generally excluded from travel.
The justifications for such a ban were discussed. It is designed to protect the United States from Covid-19 variants that are spreading in India and from the country’s extraordinarily high case numbers. However, it is not clear how effective it will be as the travel ban includes exceptions and the US does not have a robust system for quarantine on entry.
“President Biden has promised to take whatever steps are necessary to keep Americans safe and defeat the pandemic. This was a move approved by medical experts, the COVID-19 response team, and national security personnel in the United States entire US government has been recommended, “a White House official said in an email, on condition of anonymity.
For the large American Indian-American community, it has effectively cut them off from family members at home who need their support more than ever. For some, it has also jeopardized their immigration status and prevented them from returning to the United States, which they now consider home.
It’s another level of complication to what was already a dysfunctional immigration process to the US for Indians, who often have to wait years, if not decades, for green cards.
“We’re in a broken process for people who were perfectly legal from day one,” said Rahul, a Seattle-based dual citizen. “It’s not a new story.”
Indian Americans could not bring their family members to the United States
Green card holders and US citizens still have the right to travel back and forth from India. But the process of getting their family members to the US has been extremely difficult for months. After Biden issued a travel ban, Indians who applied for visas and green cards will have to wait even longer.
For Rahul, who grew up in the suburbs of Delhi, this delay means that he will probably not be able to see his sick mother for one last time. He has been trying to get her and his father out of India since 2018, when he became a US citizen and was able to begin the lengthy process of applying for their green cards.
Their applications have been held up by pandemic-related visa restrictions issued by the Trump administration that prevented parents of U.S. citizens from joining their children in the U.S., as well as backlogs caused by the pandemic. Biden lifted these restrictions, but now that he has imposed a travel ban on India, their applications are unlikely to be approved in the near future.
His mother’s application went through the first stage of screening, but his father’s case hasn’t changed in a year. Had their applications been approved, Rahul could possibly have brought them to the US before the second wave of Covid-19 in India. But his parents are now stuck in the middle of the world’s worst outbreak. Around 23 million cases, mass burns around the clock and hospitals running out of oxygen, open beds in the intensive care unit and primary care.
After following US immigration laws and paying taxes for more than a decade, he feels disappointed in his adopted country and even has the idea of leaving the country.
“Sometimes I just scratch my head. What is the benefit of pursuing the legal process? Could just cross the border and jump over, ”said Rahul. “If I could have brought my parents here, things were very different. Now they are fighting for their lives. “
His father contracted the virus but was able to recover at the age of 74. His mother, on the other hand, was ventilated and in intensive care in the hospital. From a distance, Rahul was unable to reach the overwhelmed hospital staff for information about her condition. But he has sent money to his family to pay for their medical care and arranged grocery deliveries for his father, who has mobility problems.
Despite being able to travel back and forth between the United States and India as a dual citizen, Rahul made the difficult decision not to get on a plane and see his mother. His father warned him not to risk his own welfare if he comes to India as he has two young children at home who are dependent on him.
The decision tears him apart. He said he has not been able to sleep, eat or work for the past few weeks and that his children have not had his attention.
“It’s an exaggeration to be torn between my own children and my parents,” he said. “I’m here with a decision so difficult that I may never see it again. I hope no one else has to face this. “
Indians on a temporary visa are stranded abroad
While green card holders and US citizens are still allowed to travel to the US from India, many Indians on temporary visas, including H-1B visas for highly skilled workers, have been stranded overseas due to the travel ban. Now they have no idea when to return, which in some cases has put their employment and immigration status at risk.
Denisha is an H-1B visa holder who came to the United States a decade ago and has since settled in Boston. She was forced to return to Mumbai after her application to extend her visa, which expires after six years, was caught in processing delays during the pandemic. She needs an officer at the US consulate to stamp her visa so she can return, but that won’t happen for the foreseeable future due to the travel ban.
“It was a bureaucratic hell just to make it through the immigration machine,” she said. “And that comes from someone trying to get everything right. I am still in danger of losing everything. “
Denisha is now paying for two apartments: one in Mumbai in the same apartment complex as her parents and the other in Boston. She worked remotely, still adhering to the hours on the east coast, and often working until 1am. However, her employer told her that if she cannot return to the United States by mid-July, she will lose her job. Since her immigration status is linked to her job, she will also lose her visa.
“I came to Mumbai with two suitcases,” she said. “Everything is in Boston. I have an apartment with all my things. I have a car that I bought a year and a half ago. I have credit. I have rented. If I lose this job, I can’t go back and I don’t know what to do with it. I am cut off from my life. “
A strange woman who didn’t come to see her father, she also fears having to stay in 2018 in India, which has only recently decriminalized gay sex. Most people disapprove of same-sex marriage, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has actively advocated legalization. For these reasons, she regards her chosen family, the community she started in Boston, as her true family.
“I left because I’m a strange woman. I cannot live in India. It is illegal for me to just be who I am here, so it is impossible for me to continue living here and it is impossible for me to come back, ”she said. “Even for heterosexual couples who come from different castes, there is no acceptance. There is constant fear of persecution. “
Given the status of the Covid-19 crisis in India, it is not clear whether Biden will lift the ban in time so she can keep her job. There is a lawsuit in federal court in DC challenging the “inevitable ban” on temporary visa holders from India, China, the Schengen area, the UK and Ireland, Brazil and South Africa. However, it is not clear whether the verdict will come soon enough for Denisha in this case.
“I cannot mourn my nation because I am still trying to put my own life in order. I don’t have the brain space for it, ”said Denisha.
Some were forced to mourn from afar
Delays in processing visas related to pandemics and the travel ban have prevented Indians from mourning their families at home.
Anna came to the United States about 15 years ago from Chennai, India, and after completing her PhD, she worked for a technology company in Seattle on an H-1B visa. Since then, she and her husband have applied to become permanent residents, but have to wait years to be issued green cards due to lengthy backlogs.
Her father suddenly died of Covid-19 in October. He had chronic kidney disease, which placed him at a higher risk of complications from viruses. After seeking medical help, he initially appeared to be recovering and was discharged from the hospital without a ventilator. However, when he got home, his condition quickly deteriorated.
Anna wanted to return to India immediately to mourn with her mother and brothers. Due to the fact that her H-1B visa had expired and the US consulates in India were not processing visa extensions, she had no guarantee that she would be able to return after her departure.
Instead, she applied for permission to travel to India based on her pending green card application. However, at an appointment with an immigration officer in the United States a few months later, her petition was denied.
The officer was essentially saying, ‘Your father passed away in October. It’s not really an emergency anymore, ”she said. “I honestly just started crying in front of the immigration officer.”
She tried to compensate for this by calling her family more often in India. But it wasn’t a substitute for being there in person, which she hopes will be possible later this year.
“It’s been about seven months and I really just want to hug my mom,” she said. “The most painful thing for me was that I couldn’t travel for that first month or so right after his death because then I really wanted to be there for her, for the family. … I’ve learned to appreciate the family I have. “