NEW DELHI: Natasha Bhat learned in late February that her father-in-law had suddenly died. Bhat, 35, recently recalled how she grabbed a backpack and hustled her US-born 4-year-old son to the San Francisco airport to catch a midnight flight to India, her home country. She didn’t anticipate being stuck there indefinitely.
Bhat works at a tech company in Silicon Valley on an H-1B visa, and her documents were due for renewal. So she threw them in the bag, knowing she’d have to get the chore taken care of before flying back to the US in a few weeks. But she said her mid-March appointment at the US consulate in Kolkata was canceled when it shut down due to Covid-19 concerns. Her return home was delayed further when President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week barring many people on several types of visas, including H-1Bs, from entering the country until 2021.
Trump’s executive order is the latest step in his years-long tightening of US immigration policy. The president has argued since taking office the visa programs allow employers to undercut native-born workers on wages, over the objections of companies that say they need highly skilled workers to fill crucial job openings. The latest restrictions, said Greg Siskind, an immigration lawyer in Memphis, “use the pandemic as an excuse to achieve anti-immigration goals the administration has wanted to do for years.”
H-1B holders, about three-quarters of whom work in the tech sector, have felt a creeping sense of unease since Trump took office. Still, thousands of them continued to fly back and forth between the US and their home countries, for weddings or funerals—or for work assignments or to get mundane paperwork taken care of. (Some visas require people to leave the country briefly after approval to get their passports stamped.) Many of those who left the US this spring, as Bhat did, found the world as they knew it changed mid-trip.
About 375,000 temporary visaholders and green card applicants will now be banned from entering the US until next year, according to Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan research group. A significant number of those are now stuck in India, which has long had a close connection to Silicon Valley. The technology industry has consistently objected to the administration’s immigration restrictions, and Amazon.com Inc, Alphabet Inc and Twitter Inc immediately condemned the latest executive order, along with trade groups representing hundreds of other technology firms.
The objections haven’t spared people like Bhat and her husband, who have worked in Silicon Valley for the last nine years, she as a manager for a software firm and he as an engineer at a bank. Her husband flew back to the US in early March for work and has spent the past four months of lockdown alone. Bhat is now working overnight to support her US-based clients, and trying to convince their son Adhrit to eat Indian food like chapati for breakfast over his complaints that he misses his standard Californian breakfast