Donald Trump’s suspension of the H-1B visa programme has provoked outrage in India’s technology industry, where workers stuck abroad because of coronavirus face being unable to return to their jobs and their families.
Mr Trump this week suspended issuing several visas including H-1Bs, a skilled worker programme often used by technology companies, for the remainder of the year as part of sweeping immigration restrictions in response to the pandemic.
Indians make up about 70 per cent of H-1B holders, of which 85,000 are awarded every year. Many work at US technology companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, as well as Indian outsourcers such as Tata Consultancy Services.
The president’s efforts to crack down on immigration, including what he sees as an abuse of H-1B visas to hire cheaper foreign labour instead of Americans, has stoked tension between India and the US despite efforts by Mr Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to improve ties. It has also prompted accusations of discrimination against Indian workers.
Shivendra Singh, vice-president at Indian IT industry group Nasscom, said Indian workers occupy thousands of positions that would otherwise not be filled.
“H-1B visa holders bridge a critical skills gap in the US,” he said. “There’s this perception that if you bring in people from outside they’ll increase unemployment and that jobs for local Americans will come down, [which] is not the case.”
But the timing of the move, with coronavirus lockdowns and travel restrictions still in force, means workers who returned to India to renew their H-1B visas are stuck. Lawyers estimate that more than 1,000 Indians have been separated from jobs and families in the US.
Vinod Winston, who works as a consultant for an IT company near Atlanta, travelled to India in February to care for his ailing father, who subsequently died. Before he was able to get the visa stamp he needed to return home, India went into lockdown in March and US consular services closed.
The restrictions mean Mr Winston might not be able to return to his pregnant wife and young son in the US for the rest of the year. “The way it’s being done, it’s inhuman,” he said. It’s “a wilful ban, to say those who are outside the US will not come back”.
Poorva Dixit, who works as a software engineer in Fremont, California, fears being separated from her six- and three-year-old daughters after also being stranded in India as she tried to renew her visa.
“I’ve been living in the US for 14 years. I did my masters, I have a house, I have a life, I have a family there,” she said. “I don’t know how this is going to help.”
A spokesperson for the US embassy in New Delhi confirmed that those without valid visas would not be able to return, barring certain exceptions including food supply chain workers.
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Mr Trump’s critics said the visas are vital in helping American tech companies attract international talent. Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive who was born in India, said this week that immigration had made the US “a global leader in tech”.
“The entire exercise in my mind is political posturing,” said Poorvi Chothani, managing partner of LawQuest, an immigration law firm operating in India and the US. “When you hear the human stories [it] seems so cruel.”
Pramodh Alagandhula, who had returned to Hyderabad with his family when his father fell ill, will send his daughter, a US citizen, back to Lansing, Michigan, in time for the start of the new school year. But he is unable to join the rest of his family.
“She needs to get back there,” he said. “I don’t want to leave them in this pandemic.”