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Personal Histories: How the Coronavirus Upended the Lives of Indian H-1B Visa Holders

Personal Histories: How the Coronavirus Upended the Lives of Indian H-1B Visa Holders

  • Meeting the deadline to find a job before going out of status, losing everything when forced to return to India, steep pay cuts, continued job insecurity, are the new normal.

Since the first week of March, 2020, when Covid-19 outbreak began, the United States has been in a limbo. Overnight, millions of people have lost their jobs – at its peak the unemployment rate had reached almost 15 percent, for the first time in American history since the great Depression. Even though the technology sector has not been affected as much as the rest of the economy, many high skilled professionals have lost their jobs – among them high skilled foreigners are the hardest hit. Many of them on H1B non-immigrant visa.

There are about 500,000 people on H-1B visas in the United States, according to estimates by Daniel Costa, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute. More than 70 percent of them are Indians, and a majority of them are technology workers. These high skilled Indians are not entitled to unemployment benefits even though they pay taxes. Their spouses, even with legal permission to work, will lose their jobs because of their dependent visa status. Within 60 days after H-1B visa holders’ termination, if they are unable to find a similarly specialized job, they are liable to be deported to their homeland along with their family members.

Jaya Narayan Naik has been a model employee at Cognizant (the first names of the respondents here have been changed at their request). He came to this country in 2010, and in 2013 his company sponsored his application for legal permanent residency, popularly known as the green card. It takes several years to get a green card, but this process gives hope and security to the worker who starts making plans for the long term, and to settle down in America. Naik bought a home in Milpitas, California. His two children were born here. Daughter is nine and half and son is almost three. 

Battered by the Coronavirus outbreak, many companies specially in the food, health, hospitality and other service sectors, furloughed many employees. Since furlough is not allowed under the terms of this visa, the H-1B visa holders are terminated. At Cognizant, there has been massive termination – 13,000 employees have been asked to leave. Naik was one of them. He got his pink slip on April 24, 2020. He is struggling to keep his visa and is very anxious about losing his legal status at the end of 60-day grace period since being laid off is fast approaching. 

He has been frantically applying for jobs. He was offered a job at Walmart. But the company could only hire him with the approval of Cognizant’s human resource department. But Cognizant is not willing to release his paperwork and give permission. He is desperately trying out different avenues. He got an offer at Tech Mahindra because of his impeccable work record and experience. Before giving him the appointment letter Mahindra checked his visa status and realized that his I-94 is not valid and H-1B has expired. An extension for the current H-1B has been applied at Cognizant but was not confirmed. So Mahindra would not hire him. Instead it is asking him to go back to India and apply for H-1B visa from there which, as Naik says, may take several months for him to return. And it is also complicated. 

Complicated Journey Back

Going back to India is not that easy. Commercial flights to India have been suspended since it went into lockdown in March. Under Vande Bharat Mission, Indian government has arranged direct Air India flights from different ports – San Francisco, New York and Chicago to Delhi, Ahmedabad, and recently to Bhubaneswar. According to Sanjay Panda, the outgoing Consul General of India in San Francisco, after the pandemic hit, 40,000 Indian nationals have been registered with the Indian embassy to be evacuated from U.S.A. to India. A majority of them had expired H-1B visa and currently left without a salary. Out of 40,000 registered, only 2,200 people have been evacuated so far. There is a huge waiting list and a sense of despair growing among the floating visa holders. Indian government gives high priority to the older people on visitor visa, pregnant women, and those with medical conditions. 

Since furlough is not allowed under the terms of this visa, the H1B visa holders are terminated. At Cognizant, there has been massive termination – 13,000 employees have been asked to leave.

At the time of my interview with Naik, India did not allow the foreign born with Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card to enter the country. Hence H-1B visa holders are not permitted to return to India with their children who have OCI cards. Parents who desperately had to leave the U.S. to avoid overstay in this country had to leave behind their children. Several of them are reaching out to their friends, acquaintances and community to help them out. Naik is worried about his children. He says “both my children are the U.S. citizens and are OCI card holders. So I cannot go to India without them.” 

Besides, his daughter has a congenital heart problem and had a critical surgery when she was 2 years old. She needs to be checked in regularly. His son has speech issues and is going through speech therapy at a local specialized clinic. He is also nervous that he cannot pay the house mortgage and will lose his home. In the meantime, his job offer would not stand because CISCO, the customer of Tech Mahindra which has offered him the job will not wait long. Naik is considering another possibility to avoid going out of status. He is applying for I140 Employment Authorization Document (EAD) which was enacted during the Obama administration based on compelling circumstances. One could get an extended visa under three conditions 1) Family medical emergency 2) Work place harassment 3) Job loss.

Both his children demand serious medical attention. They need to be here for medical treatment which may not be available in India. He is distressed. “I am submitting all the documents to USCIS and it needs to be approved soon. But it generally takes 3 to 4 months. I want to stay here for my children. It does not matter how much money I make. If my children suffer, what is the use of making money?” he says.

On May 22, 2020, the Government of India issued a memo that OCI cases will be entertained to enter India under special circumstances. But practically no commercial flights are available to fill out the backlog of people on the waiting list.

Abhijeet Saha, a H-1B visa holder, shares his experience of going through this pandemic. With an engineering degree from NIT Durgapur, he came to this country as an employee of Cognizant in 2014 on H-1B visa. In 2016, he moved to a secondary mortgage company in Virginia. His wife, a government school teacher in India, left her job and along with their son joined him in the U.S. Because of his sterling performance, his company sponsored him for the green card in just three months. His wife got her H-4 EAD in 2018 and joined a part time tutoring program for young kids. In Saha’s words, she was making some pocket money. 

In 2019, Saha moved to California for a better opportunity and joined a ticketing company owned by eBay. Recently, eBay sold the company to another small company. Saha was upset with this new company with its policies on salary, 401K, vacation days, etc. and felt that it wasn’t the place he would want to stay too long. “Then COVID came. In just the first week the company put 66 percent of employees on furlough. They said they only needed 33 percent of their workforce because sales would be down that much.”

He narrates his predicament in these words: “Once they announced they were going to furlough us, I started looking for jobs offsite. And while I was looking, we were still fighting with our company, saying they could not just put us on furlough. Either terminate us or bring us back. But I finally got a contact, looking for someone with my skillset which was the work I was doing earlier. He was looking for a data analyst so I applied for that position and it worked out. I transferred my H-1B to save my visa status. Fortunately, that worked.”

Inbuilt Discrimination

According to Saha under the Covid-19 conditions, high tech workers are willing to take steep pay cuts. There are too many people with similar skills looking for work. H-1B visa holders are particularly worse off as the companies prefer to hire workers with citizenship. “To recruit us, companies would have to hire an attorney to process our H-1B and we could not even join the company right away. It takes time to process the employment,” he says.

Reflecting on the discrimination experienced by H-1B visa holders, Saha observes, “Even if we have higher merit, higher skill sets, we don’t have higher salaries because we have dependencies here.” Apart from that there is job uncertainty. One has to renew H-1B visa constantly. For some people USCIS gives only six months. And every time you renew it, it costs $6,500. 

See Also

Reflecting on the discrimination experienced by H-1B visa holders, Saha observes, “Even if we have higher merit, higher skill sets, we don’t have higher salaries because we have dependencies here.”

Upendra Mohanty is another victim of Coronavirus pandemic. He came to this country in 2012 and had the dream of settling down in Cleveland, Ohio. In a couple of years, he already had I-140 approved and  his company had applied for his green card. He was so excited that he went ahead and bought a house. When the pandemic hit, his fate changed overnight and he was forced to go back to India. The project that he was working on was put on hold and all H-1B visa holders working on it were terminated. People working on the database of the service sectors like Macy’s, Kohls, Walmart, hotel chains, airlines and entertainment industries have downsized. From owning a new dream home, Mohanty became homeless in America.

Natasha Patra is married to a H-1B visa holder, and is on H-4 EAD visa. Very recently, she has started working for Sprint and for T-Mobile after the takeover. But it was not easy journey. In 2018, on H-4 visa, she along with her daughter followed her husband to this country. They came to Omaha, and in a few months with her husband’s new project they had to move to Virginia, then to Chicago and now in Virginia. She was not interested in coming to the U.S. She had a secure job with HP in Bangalore and was enjoying a flourishing career. She was very attached to her parents in Bhubaneswar. When her husband’s company sponsored him for H-1B visa, he went alone. She continued with her job in Bangalore. After a year, however, in order to keep the family together, she had to join her husband.

In the U.S., she became a full time wife and mother without a job. Later, she secured her H-4 EAD and her first job interview was a success. But to her utter shock, the company declined to employ her because of her visa. She realized that H-4EAD is not very welcome in many companies because they do not know much about this kind of visa and do not want to make the commitment. Hence she has lost many job opportunities. “It has been truly debilitating.”

All these moves have taken a toll on Patra. She misses her active professional life back in India. In the U.S., it is only the work and she does not feel connected. Since she has moved so many places, she does not have a sense of belonging or have a support group locally.

Patra is worried about  her husband’s job security. He is a H-1B visa holder and his company in Virginia has terminated more than 100 people on contract visa. So their work has been distributed among the rest of the employees. She says that her husband “works the whole night. Work pressure is steep and there is job uncertainty.” She is very aware that as a H-4 EAD visa holder, if the husband loses his job, automatically her visa will be terminated. 

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a post-doctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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  • I’m an Indian American and I can tell you that these stories, however sad they may be, are one sided. America is open for the best and brightest, that’s why O1 visas are still open. My parents, Like many others came on that visa. H-1B is a highly abused visa and many mediocre people come in and displace American workers. This visa class needs to be cancelled or restricted and made purely non-immigrant with companies allowed to sponsor workers allowed for 2 years with a minimum salary of $130k and a application fee of $15K paid by the company to train American workers. I have nothing against my ethnic fellers, but would India allow 500,000 Chinese to set up body shops and hire Chinese only, displace Indians and then get permanent residency there? Obviously not. For the best and brightest, we welcome you. Please use O visas. The Canadian and Australian logic is senseless, too. These are 2nd tier countries with less population and less jobs so they make their immigration easier to attract workers. USA does not need to attract anyone, people are waiting in lines. It’s like asking Harvard to make their admission process easier.

    • So, the US, with 4 % of the world population and ~ 50 percent of global fortune companies and 70% of cutting edge global research that’s based on US will be able to fulfill those jobs with native mediocrity? Some visas may be abused but to say top talent from rest of the world is less qualified to US native talents is just unscientific at best and quite racist otherwise. Yes, the US trains better graduates but then most of the STEM grad programs are teeming with foreign born profs and students (as it should since talent is universal; that’s why Hollywood doesn’t hire those only from LA). US born should be happy and incredibly lucky that they get to live in the ‘Hollywood’ of the world and due to the geographic clustering of knowledge in the US. However talent clustering is geographically more random thank god!!

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