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The human cost of Biden’s travel ban on India

“I can’t grieve for my nation because I am still just trying to sort my own life out.”

A visitor wearing a sari sits on a bed beside a patient receiving oxygen at a hospital in India.
A Covid-19 patient is treated with oxygen at BDM Government Hospital on May 15, 2021 in Rajasthan, India.
Rebecca Conway/Getty Images

For the more than 2.7 million Indian immigrants who have put down roots in the US, President Joe Biden’s decision to ban most travel from their home country as its health system collapses under a surge of coronavirus cases has come at a price.

The ban, which went into effect on May 4, is similar to those imposed on travelers from other countries, including China and the UK. But Indians who have lived in the US for years told Vox that, as a result of the ban and visa processing delays, they have been stranded abroad, barred from bringing their family over, and unable to travel to India, even to care for or grieve for their parents, fearing that they will not be able to return. (Names have been changed to protect their immigration cases.)

There are narrow exemptions for American citizens and green card holders, their spouses, minor children or siblings, and the parents of citizens or green card holders who are under the age of 21. But people who don’t fall into those categories are essentially barred from traveling.

The justifications for such a ban have been debated. It is intended to protect the US from Covid-19 variants spreading in India and the country’s extraordinarily high caseloads. But it’s not clear how effective it will be, given that the travel ban does include exemptions and that the US does not have a robust system for quarantining upon entry.

“President Biden has promised to take every measure necessary to keep Americans safe and defeat the pandemic, and this was a step recommended by the medical experts, the COVID-19 Response Team, and National Security personnel across the US Government,” a White House official said in an email, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

For the US’s large Indian American community, it has effectively cut them off from family members back home who need their support more than ever. For some, it has also jeopardized their immigration status and prevented them from returning to the US, which they now consider home.

It’s another layer of complication on top of what was already a dysfunctional process of immigrating to the US for Indians, who often have to wait years if not decades for green cards.

“We are stuck with a broken process for people who have been completely legal from day one,” Rahul, a US citizen who grew up in Delhi, said. “It’s not a new story.”

Indian Americans have not been able to bring their family members to the US

Green card holders and US citizens still have the right to travel back and forth from India. But the process of bringing their family members to the US has been exceedingly difficult for months. Now that Biden has enacted a travel ban, Indians who had applied for visas and green cards will have to wait even longer.

For Rahul, who is now living in Seattle, that delay means that he likely won’t be able to see his ailing mother one last time. He has been trying to bring her and his father over from India since 2018, when he became a US citizen and was able to begin the lengthy process of applying for their green cards.

Their applications were held up by pandemic-related visa restrictions enacted by the Trump administration, which prevented parents of US citizens from joining their children in the US, as well as backlogs caused by the pandemic. Biden lifted those restrictions, but now that he has imposed a travel ban on India, their applications are not likely to be approved in the near future.

His mother’s application has passed the initial stage of screening, but there hasn’t been any movement on his father’s case for a year. Had their applications been approved, Rahul might have been able to bring them to the US before India’s second wave of Covid-19 hit. But his parents are now stuck in the middle of the world’s worst outbreak, with cases topping 23 million, round-the-clock mass cremations, and hospitals running out of oxygen, open ICU beds, and basic supplies.

After following US immigration laws and paying taxes for more than a decade, he feels let down by his adopted country and has even entertained the idea of leaving.

“Sometimes I just scratch my head. What’s the advantage of following the legal process? Might as well just cross the border and jump over,” Rahul said. “Had I been able to bring my parents here, things would have been very different. Now, they’re fighting for their lives.”

His father fell ill with the virus, but was able to recover, even at age 74. His mother, on the other hand, has been on a ventilator and under intensive care in the hospital. From afar, Rahul hasn’t been able to get through to the overwhelmed hospital staff to get updates on her condition. But he has been sending money to his family to pay for her medical care, as well as arranging grocery deliveries for his father, who has mobility issues.

Though he could travel back and forth between the US and India as a dual citizen, Rahul made the difficult decision not to get on a plane and see his mother. His father warned him against risking his own well-being in coming to India given that he has two young children at home who depend on him.

The decision is tearing him apart. He said he hasn’t been able to sleep, eat, or work for the past few weeks, and his children haven’t had his attention.

“It’s excessive, being torn between my own kids and my parents,” he said. “I’m here with such a tough decision that I might not see them ever again. I hope nobody else has to face it.”

Indians on temporary visas are stranded abroad

While green card holders and US citizens are still allowed to travel from India to the US, many Indians with temporary visas, including H-1B visas for high-skilled workers, have been stranded abroad due to the travel ban. Now they have no idea when they will be able to return, which, in some cases, has jeopardized their employment and immigration status.

Denisha is an H-1B visa holder who arrived in the US a decade ago and has since settled in Boston. She was forced to return to Mumbai after her application to renew her visa, which expires after six years, was caught up in processing delays amid the pandemic. She needs an official at the US Consulate to stamp her visa in order for her to return, but that won’t happen for the foreseeable future due to the travel ban.

“It’s been a bureaucratic hell just making it through the immigration machine,” she said. “And this is coming from someone who’s trying to do everything right. I’m still at the risk of losing everything.”

Denisha is now paying for two apartments: one in Mumbai in the same apartment complex as her parents, and the other in Boston. She has been working remotely, still keeping East Coast hours and often working till 1 am. But her employer told her that if she isn’t able to come back to the US by mid-July, she will lose her job, and since her immigration status is tied to her job, she will lose her visa, too.

“I came to Mumbai with two suitcases,” she said. “Everything is in Boston. I have an apartment with all my belongings. I have a car that I just purchased a year and a half ago. I have loans. I have rent. If I lose this job, there’s no way for me to go back and I don’t know what to do with all of that. I am cut off from my life.”

As a queer woman who hasn’t come out to her father, she also fears having to remain in India, which only decriminalized gay sex in 2018. Most people disapprove of same-sex marriage, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has actively campaigned against legalizing it. For those reasons, she views her chosen family, the community she has created in Boston, as her true family.

“I left because I’m a queer woman. I can’t live in India. It’s illegal for me to just be who I am here, so it’s impossible for me to continue living here and it’s impossible for me to get back,” she said. “There’s a no acceptance even for straight couples who are from different castes. There is a constant fear of persecution.”

Given the status of the Covid-19 crisis in India, it’s not clear whether Biden will lift the ban in time for her to keep her job. There is a lawsuit in DC federal court challenging the “total, inescapable ban” on temporary visa holders from India, as well as China, the Schengen Area, the UK and Ireland, Brazil, and South Africa. But it’s not clear whether the judgment in the case will come soon enough for Denisha.

“I can’t grieve for my nation because I am still just trying to sort my own life out. I don’t have the brain space for it,” Denisha said.

Some have been forced to grieve from afar

Pandemic-related visa processing delays and the travel ban have prevented Indians from being able to grieve with their family back home.

Anna came to the US about 15 years ago from Chennai, India, and after getting her PhD, she went on to work for a tech company in Seattle on an H-1B visa. She and her husband have since applied to become permanent residents, but they are facing a years-long wait before they are issued green cards due to lengthy backlogs.

Her father died suddenly of Covid-19 in October. He had chronic kidney disease, which put him at a higher risk of complications from virus. But after seeking medical care, he had initially appeared to be recovering and was discharged from the hospital without needing a ventilator. Once he arrived home, however, his condition quickly deteriorated.

Anna wanted to go back to India immediately to join her mother and brothers in mourning. But because her H-1B visa had expired and US consulates in India were not processing visa renewals, she had no guarantee that she would be able to return once she left the country.

Instead, she sought emergency permission to travel to India on the basis of her pending green card application. But at an appointment with an immigration officer in the US several months later, her petition was rejected.

“The officer essentially said, ‘Your father passed away in October. It’s not not really an emergency anymore,’” she said. “I honestly just started crying in front of the immigration officer.”

She tried to compensate by calling her family in India more often. But it wasn’t a substitute for being there in person, which she hopes will be a possibility later this year.

“It’s been about seven months, and I really want to just give my mom a hug,” she said. “The thing that was most painful for me was not being able to travel in that first month or so right after he passed because that’s when I really wanted to be there for them, for the family. ... I’ve learned to cherish the family I have.”