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 U.S.-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 U.S. in a few weeks. But she said her mid-March appointment at the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. this spring, as Bhat did, found the world as they knew it changed mid-trip.
About 375,000 temporary visas and green cardholders will now be banned from entering the U.S. until next year, according to Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan 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, Alphabet and Twitter 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 U.S. in early March for work and has spent the past four months of lockdown alone. Bhat is now working overnight to support her U.S.-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 of avocado toast.
The prospect of a wave of people stranded abroad began worrying Siskind several weeks ago when he first caught wind of the planned order. On Twitter, he warned workers on non-immigrant visas not to leave the U.S. He urged those abroad to come back as soon as possible.
Once the order took effect, Siskind set up an online form for people to share their stories, and asked his followers on social media to fill it out. Within 24 hours, he had over 500 responses. There was the scientist researching coronavirus-testing products who flew to India to get married, the Atlanta-based IT consultant who may miss the birth of his child, the 2-year-old girl who was born in the U.S. and has developed severe allergic skin reactions to mosquito bites in India, the Intel Corp. employee who is now running critical projects from afar.
Siskind fielded calls from husbands separated from wives, parents from children. People told him they were worried about keeping up with mortgage payments on houses, car loans and jobs. Some had U.S.-born children who are American citizens enrolled in U.S. schools. Many have valid visas and assumed all they would need to get back in the country was a routine stamp in their passport.
Narendra Singh, an Indian-born software architect who has lived in Dallas for nine years, took his family back to Kolkata in February. Their return was delayed when the consulates closed and they were advised to wait out the worst of the pandemic. Now Singh is working remotely. His wife, a software engineer, lost her job in April. Their daughter, a U.S. citizen, was slated to start preschool in the fall, but they've been preparing her for the possibility that won't happen. Singh, 36, said he knew there was always a chance of his visa not being extended, but assumed he was secure until his current visa was set to expire in 2022. "We took specialized jobs, we followed the rules, we got the visas," he said. "I just feel betrayed."
Mili Widhani Khatter, 39, who has lived in the U.S. with her husband and two U.S.-born children for the past 12 years, flew back to Delhi without her family to say goodbye to her dying mother. She hasn't seen her children in nearly four months, and said her 2-year-old son has forgotten how to say "mama" since they've been apart. "This is the worst punishment you can give to a mom," Khatter said. "It's not humane."
Now families worry what another six months of uncertainty will do to their kids - and to the futures they thought they were charting. "I have a valid visa. I've been living in the Bay Area for eight years. I have a life there and a home there, and my husband is there," Bhat said. "Will I ever be able to go back?"