Neha Mahajan, left, with her husband Ashu and their children. (Courtesy Neha Mahajan)
When Georgia resident Gaurav Chauhan heard his father had been hospitalized with Covid-19 in India, he immediately decided to travel to help care for him. But Chauhan didn’t realize that doing so would put him in the middle of a bureaucratic loophole many India-born visa holders are trying to navigate as they struggle to get authorization to return to their homes and careers in the U.S.
While Chauhan’s father was discharged from the hospital after seven days in the intensive care unit, “he is still too weak to do basic work and needs support,” Chauhan told NBC Asian America in an email.
As he works to help his father navigate his recovery, Chauhan is also trying to figure out how to return to his own wife and young children in Atlanta. Like all H-1B visa holders, Chauhan needs to get his visa stamped in person by an official at a U.S. Consulate to return, but because of coronavirus-related closures, all of the consulates in India are closed and no appointments are available.
Although the White House announced in April that it would restrict most travel from India to the United States beginning May 4, U.S. citizens, permanent residents and visa holders who are the spouses, siblings or parents of U.S. citizens were exempt. Because of this, Chauhan — whose children were both born in the United States — is not subject to the travel ban.
But the current closures at the U.S. Embassy in India and consulates across India mean he and many other Indian nationals based in the United States are effectively barred from re-entering the country. Because there is currently no timeline for when the consulates will reopen, many visa holders fear their careers and immigration status will be endangered.
For Chauhan and his wife, the hardest part about his uncertain visa status has been explaining the situation to their children, who are 3 and 7.
“My three year old doesn’t understand and keeps looking outside towards my car and asks where I am and why I am not coming,” he said. “This breaks my heart.”
He recently tweeted a video of the younger child and tagged several lawmakers and news organizations in an attempt to draw attention to the impact the coronavirus-related visa backlog is having on American families.
Chauhan and his family are not the only visa holders affected by the current embassy closures. Claire Pratt, an immigration attorney at Jewell Stewart & Pratt in San Francisco, is working with several clients who are navigating the India travel ban and the impact of the suspension of some consular operations.
“I have clients who have had to postpone weddings because they are not sure they’ll be able to come back,” Pratt said, adding that other clients also fear they will not be able to get their new spouses entry visas into the United States while consulate operations are on hold. “I’ve also had clients who need to go back to see sick family members and they have not been able to go because they know they cannot come back. There are definitely real life consequences to this.”
Neha Mahajan and her husband, Ashu, who first came to the U.S. in 2008 on H-1B visas, are also weighing their options about Ashu Mahajan’s lack of visa certification. He flew to New Delhi in mid-April when he received word that his father was gravely ill with Covid-19.
“The doctors literally called us and said, ‘If you want to see him, now’s the time to come by,’” Neha Mahajan, who is also a co-founder of the group Skilled Immigrants in America, said. “Imagine our plight. If a doctor calls you, what do you do? You would drop everything you have and you would just rush to go.”
Ashu Mahajan’s father died of Covid-19 shortly after his arrival on April 17. Since then, like Chauhan and others, he has not been able to get a consular appointment to get his visa stamped. Because Neha Mahajan stayed behind at their home in New Jersey with their children, who are 9 and 15, she has been contacting elected officials and others to assess what their options are.
A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told NBC Asian America in a statement that all routine visa appointments at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi and the consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai will continue to be suspended.
“The U.S. Missions in India are continuing their important operations to support the U.S.-India relationship and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, some services are limited,” the statement read. “Mission India posts will make every attempt to continue to honor approved emergency visa appointments.”
Neha Mahajan noted that while she personally doesn’t disagree with a travel ban from India for tourists, there should be a way for visa holders with jobs and roots in the U.S. to return to the country, especially those who are exempt from the travel restrictions because they are the parents of citizens.
“Now is not the time for traveling for leisure,” Neha Mahajan said. “But people like us have worked and lived in the United States of America for more than a decade. We deserve to go back to be able to care for the dying and then be able come right back in.”