How Trump's H-1B Visa Order Is Affecting Indians

Donald Trump's order to freeze H-1B visa most often used by software engineers provoked dismay and disbelief in India, citizens of which have come by the hundreds to work on technology projects in the US.

How Trump's H-1B Visa Order Is Affecting Indians

Donald Trump said the work visa order would protect US workers suffering from job losses. (File)

When news broke Monday that the Donald Trump-led US administration would restrict some types of work visas through the end of the year, software engineer Poorva Dixit was giving a remote presentation from Mumbai, Maharashtra, to her colleagues at a digital health-care firm in California. She was so distressed that she froze. A co-worker took over the meeting.

Ms Dixit, 37, has lived in the United States for 14 years; her two children, 6 and 3, are US citizens. She had to rush to India in March after her mother had an accident and later died. The country's strict coronavirus lockdown forced the closure of the embassy before her appointment to renew her visa. Monday's announcement was a bombshell that she feared would divide her family and risk her livelihood.

"I'm still speechless," she said in a phone interview. "I don't know what I'll do next."

US President Donald Trump's order to freeze a type of visa most often used by software engineers provoked dismay and disbelief in India, citizens of which have come by the hundreds to work on technology projects in the United States. Indians account for 75% of visa applications under the H-1B program for skilled workers, according to the latest government data. Nearly 85,000 immigrants are admitted on H-1Bs every year.

Donald Trump said the order would protect US workers suffering from job losses resulting from the pandemic; critics say he is using the crisis as an opportunity to implement sweeping changes to the immigration system. The measures apply only to applicants abroad.

The move was condemned by American technology companies that rely on the program for their workforces. Sundar Pichai, the Indian American chief executive of Google, said in a tweet that he was "disappointed." Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said he disagreed with the move, calling it "too broad."

In India, Hemant Mohapatra, a partner at the venture capital firm Lightspeed India, called on professionals to come back to India, describing the ban as a "personal betrayal."

Some Indians working in the US were stranded outside of the country or separated from their families because of flight bans and visa processing delays during the pandemic. Donald Trump's new executive order has deepened the uncertainty around their future.

For Ms Dixit, the visa ban means prolonging the separation from her children. Her younger daughter doesn't talk to her on FaceTime anymore. She worries about how these months will affect her older daughter.

"I can give up on my career, but I need to reunite with my kids," she said. "Should I risk their lives by making them travel here in a pandemic?"

For Pramod Alagandhula, 36, an engineer working at a biotechnology company in Michigan, this could signal the end of his American Dream. He first came to the United States as a student in 2007, found a job he liked and pieced together a life.

He and his wife returned to India in February to care for a sick parent. He has been working remotely from India since March, but the embassy closure meant his visa renewal application -- required for him to return to the United States -- was not processed. He worries that he will lose his job if he is unable to go back soon.

"I am still in shock," he said. "It's like my life is coming apart."

Nasscom, a trade association in the Indian information technology industry, called the order "misguided and harmful to the US economy."

"H-1B visas - from their inception until today - fulfill a critical skills gap in the US economy and make it more competitive," Shivendra Singh, vice president of global trade at Nasscom. H-1B workers, he said, are also engaged in managing essential services in coronavirus recovery, in areas such as hospitals, cybersecurity, online education and e-commerce. Some of "the backbone and critical infrastructure is being managed by the technology workers on H-1B."

Ms Dixit, the software engineer from California, has written to US senators and congressmen in desperation. She has also sought an emergency appointment with the embassy, without luck.

"I didn't do anything wrong or break any law," she said. "Why are we being punished?"