Indians in US are missing important life events of loved ones due to VISA renewal policy

It was Saturday morning, and I woke up hearing my phone ringing. It was my sister from India who was calling me to inform that she got engaged last night, and they were going to get married in 3-4 months. I was very happy for her, and we had a lengthy talk about the arrangements for the wedding ceremonies, the invitations, the music, and of course the attire. Yes — nothing was set in stone just yet. But, it felt so good to have spoken to her after such a long time, and on such a good news. We hung up, and in no less than two minutes, I felt a sinking feeling. No, not because my sister was getting married. It was because of the uncertainty I will need to go through just to get to her wedding. Let me start with giving you some background.

You’d think that I should not miss it for the world! After all, I only have one sister! And, that is true! But, travelling anywhere outside the United States is not easy as it seems for people like me. I have been legally employed in the United States on an H1-B visa for close to a decade. I originally came here to pursue my master’s degree in computer science. Having graduated from one of the good universities, I immediately landed a job out of school, and my employer sponsored my temporary worker (H1-B) visa. I have worked hard all through these years to also secure support from my employer to get a permanent residency (green card). But, there is an insanely long (decades long) wait for the green cards to be issued to people like me, especially ones who were born in India. So, while we wait, our “Temporary” H1-B visas are renewed every 1 or 3 years and that allows us to legally work in the United States.

So, coming back to the sinking feeling. I just realized that the Visa stamped on my Indian passport had expired. While I had the necessary work authorizations to continue to work in the United States, I would be required to submit for a Visa Re-validation once I exit the United States. Unfortunately, the visas cannot be re-validated and the passports cannot be stamped within the United States. Vipul Naik, of Open Borders, explores some possible reasons why this is so. But, several such questions remain open. Why can’t highly-skilled immigrants get their visas renewed or re-validated while within the United States? Also, those who have lived in the US for years, why do they have to apply for visa renewals and undergo same rigorous checks as first time applicants? If I have a pending green card application (with an approved immigration petition), shouldn’t I have a longer authorized visa stay on my passport?

The Visa stamping process is not simple, and often involves an interview at one of the United States consulates in the country you are visiting. People like me must spend money for the visa fees, fill up a form that asks you information you may have provided already so many times (famously and formally called DS-160), set up an interview appointment at one of the offices (and this is not easy to get at a short notice), and carry all your original documents (birth certificate, marksheets, tax returns, paystubs, and more) everywhere. This required so much planning and preparation ahead of time. Considering that there is a decade long wait to get green cards, I would be doing this process almost each time I visited India. This is a time-consuming and a risky process for both employers and the employees. I have recently seen some of my friends experience further complications when they got stuck back in India because of processing delays and errors. Some employers are not that kind enough to wait till this is sorted out, and they end up terminating the employment. Without a visa sponsor, individuals can no longer get that visa stamped, do not have that job, and now stuck in a different country with no job.

Those who have lived for decade or over can have their American dream come to abrupt end if the interview doesn’t go well. It also results in fire-sale of houses, cars and all their belongings as they have to rely on mercy of friends and neighbors for such sale. The applicant is not given a chance to personally dispose of their belongings, though one may have lived decades in the US. I had a colleague who skipped his own younger brother funeral because of uncertainty surrounding the re-validation process, and the colleague who went for his father’s funeral was stuck in India for 9 months though he had all the paperwork. Imagine having to go through interviews and paperwork, while mourning the loss of a loved one. Very heartbreaking!

Thus, families have started fearing to get visa re-validations. They have simply stopped travelling outside the US. This has led to many missing weddings, funerals, and other important life events of their loved ones.

I find it difficult to understand why we cannot allow visa re-validations/renewals within the United States. I see the following benefits:

  • The system will enjoy a higher compliance/renewal rate. More people will avoid overstaying their visa limits, and renew in a timely manner.
  • Getting the machinery to renew/re-validate visas within the United States will not just become the extra revenue source for agencies such as USCIS or DHS, but also help them hire more workers to process this increased demand (We do want more American workers getting jobs, don’t we?).
  • Easier background checks for people who are within the United States. Once you are outside, I’d imagine it becomes difficult to track and probably expensive to get credible background information from third-party sources.
  • More importantly, a boost in the travel industry because people like me can freely travel outside the country. This will surely indirectly add revenue and funding to the federal agencies keeping our borders safe.

Although I am happy for my sister, and I should be putting her life event on priority, I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place. With a heavy heart, I have decided to skip the wedding like 100s of thousands of my compatriots in US who have missed and continue to miss important life events. This is a cruel byproduct of the broken US immigration system and I wish I knew about these hassles of travel and backlogs before I came to this country, now I am stuck in a quagmire of uncertainty.

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