As the United States approached its six month of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, foreigners whose legal status hung in the air because of non-operational federal agencies were contemplating a future of great uncertainty. As described in this Wall Street Journal article published in June, the situation was looking grim not just for immigrants but also for non-immigrant holders of work and study visas.
The WSJ story in question detailed the ordeal experienced by Natasha Bhat, a human resources specialist at a technology startup firm in California, who made an emergency trip to India to attend a funeral. Even though the COVID-19 outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan had already claimed thousands of lives, the World Health Organization had not yet considered declaring SARS-CoV-2 a pandemic. This was the last thing on Bhat’s mind as she left the U.S. in late February; she followed the news on the Chinese CTV network while she was home, but she never thought that she would have to worry about getting the requisite stamp on her H-1B visa, a matter that the U.S. Consulate in Calcutta would certainly handle.
One day before her appointment at the Consulate had been set, the U.S. State Department announced that all American embassies and consular agencies were to stop issuing visas of any kind. Operations were stopped, and even U.S. citizens in need of a passport to return home found themselves stranded abroad.
Bhat became separated from her husband, another H-1B visa holder who had returned to the U.S. during the early days of the pandemic. The next step taken by the Trump administration may have been shocking, but political analysts saw it coming: As part of President Trump’s draconian immigration policies, he ordered an immediate halt to all employment visas, and the rationale he cited for this move was that he wanted to ensure that Americans would be in line to get jobs once regional economies were reactivated.
Trump may have thought that the coronavirus pandemic presented a perfect storm in sync with his political goals; he has always been critical of the H-1B visa program because American workers should always be first in line to get jobs intended for highly skilled workers who do not mind earning salaries at far below market rates. Some of those H-1B workers ended up going back home when their employers closed shop or simply because they were legitimately afraid of the high coronavirus infection rates in the U.S.
On August 14, Trump announced that some of the restrictions placed on H-1B visas would be relaxed. Visa holders who could not return home even after their companies suspended operations or folded will be allowed to return to their jobs or look for immediate equivalent openings. Technology giants such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter have filed legal challenges against these extreme measures taken by the White House, and it looks like the pressure is working. Finally, former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading candidate in the upcoming elections, has announced that he intends to add some flexibility to the H-1B visa program and even eliminate the annual caps.