The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at JFK. (Photo: noway on Flickr)

Soon after Yukti visited India in February to get her H-1B visa stamp, American consulates around the world shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, the 28-year-old New Yorker hasn’t had a good night’s sleep and she has lost seven pounds. Over the past four months, she has delayed her return flight to the US four times, called the consulate in Mumbai daily until almost every phone receptionist knows her full name, and pleaded her case to no avail. Now, thanks to President Trump’s latest visa suspension order, which bans foreign workers with no H1-B visa stamps from entering the US, she is looking at another six months of unpaid leave from the Manhattan bank where she worked, while stranded in India.

Like Yukti, thousands of foreign workers face uncertainty due to an executive order that went into effect on June 24. It outlines a number of new restrictions on visas for immigrant and non-immigrant workers, impacting about 525,000 individuals, according to the Trump administration. 

Trump argues that the order, in place until the end of 2020, can protect American jobs in the face of the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But Stacey Gartland, an immigration lawyer at Van Der Hout LLP, doesn’t think that theory is borne out by economic statistics. “Because the people that hold the vast majority of these kinds of visas are not the kind of people that are being laid off due to the epidemic,” Gartland noted during a recent information session hosted by the University of California student workers union. “It seems to be an excuse to further limit immigration.”

Statistics released by the Department of Labor show that the leisure and hospitality industry was the hardest hit by the pandemic, with the vast majority of layoffs in food service. The categories of nonimmigrant visas blocked by the order, however, include H-1B visas, used for skilled workers commonly in the tech industry; H-4 visas, given to their spouses; H-2B visas, for seasonal workers;L-1 visas, for executives transferring to the US from overseas positions with the same employer; and certain J-1 visas which apply to researchers, scholars and other specialized categories such as au pairs. It also extends the “immgration ban” the president initially signed on April 22, which suspends green card applications for people outside of the United States. 

Trump’s proclamation has only exacerbated hurdles foreign workers have faced during the pandemic. Biplab Kumar Das, who works for a software company in New York, returned to India in February to care for his critically ill father, only to witness him pass away the next day after multiple strokes. Like Yukti, without an H-1B visa stamp, he has been stranded in India for four months, waiting for the consulate to open, while paying rent, loans, leases, and credit card debts in the US. There’s no guarantee that his company will continue to let him remotely for a long period of time. 

“Being the sole breadwinner of the family to support my ailing mother and two sisters, I am not sure how long I can survive given the ban which lasts until the end of the year,” he writes in a text.

With H-4 visas included in the freeze, thousands of families are forced to stay separated. Pratik Tortikar and his girlfriend started dating in 2015. In the past five years, while he has worked in the US, they’ve only spent eight days together. Last December, they finally got married in India but spent less than a week as a married couple. Tortikar came back to work in the US, leaving his young wife behind to wait for an H-4 visa approval. 

Because Tortikar was working legally in the US under an H-1B visa as of June 24, he is not affected by the executive order. But his wife, whose mental health has already been deteriorating and is undergoing neuropathy treatment, was devastated. “She even talked about suicide twice in last two weeks, once after the EO came out,” Tortikar said. “This is very unfair for what happened to us.”

In higher education institutions, the proclamation will affect newly-hired faculty members, doctors at university medical schools, IT professionals, librarians, and researchers who are not currently in the US, according to Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School. Across the nation, university graduate workers unions reacted swiftly to the proclamation. On June 23, the University of California’s student workers union organized an online information session deciphering the details of the proclamation. Over 500 people attended. 

Along with the union of graduate workers of Columbia University, union leaders sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, detailing the contributions of immigrant workers to international research and collaboration. “They also are key to instructing tens of thousands of undergraduate students,” the letter reads. “Removing these individuals from campuses or preventing them from entering the country would severely disrupt our strong collaborative working relationships that are vital to our ability to overcome the pandemic.”

The order allows exceptions for foreign workers whose entry is related to the national interest of the US, involving national security, medical research on Covid-19, diplomacy, and economic recovery.

Gargi Pal, a postdoctoral researcher of prostate cancer at Hunter College, City University of New York, has also lost the right to come back to the US and continue her study before the end of 2020. Both she and her husband are researchers at higher institutions in New York. Pal has received several awards and scholarships for her achievements in cancer research in the US. 

“Because of the proclamation, everything became uncertain,” she said. “I enjoy my work and now feel very disappointed about the new proclamation of the government.”

In an inter-university working group for international and immigrant students and alliance, people posted links and comments to make sense of the new executive order. Group members compiled a document that lists the harmful impacts of Trump’s order, including researchers and PhD students having to take a leave of absence for fall semester, and losing their stipends, medical insurance, and assistant positions on campus. 

Small businesses in the IT and computer science fields also face challenges because of the visa freeze. Jing Feng, an immigration lawyer and partner at Jing Feng Law Group PLLC in NYC, said that she has been working with several small business owners whose foreign employees have been unable to go back to work. Feng explained that since the positions require specific skills that are difficult to find in US workers, employers resort to foreign workers to fill the positions, sometimes paying an even higher wage and additional investment to sponsor H-1B workers. 

Small businesses, “have fewer options to shift the caseload around.” Feng said. When a specific person who is in charge of a project can’t work, the project has to stop. “It’s very difficult for them to maintain the business.”

Several legal groups around the country, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, are seeking plaintiffs and preparing to file lawsuits against the proclamation. 

Beyond the immediate consequences, some worry that further changes in US immigration policy are looming. Gartland speculates that at the end of July or later, new regulations could be added to the existing order, including a higher wage level for H-1B visa applications or an elimination of H-4 visas.

Attracted by the prospect of the American dream, Yukti came to the US in 2014 to study and look for a “dream job,” she said. Over the years, she has become “a self-made person” and has created the home in Chelsea she once hoped for. Facing a somber future at the moment, she doesn’t know what will come next. 

“My only focus right now is to do everything in my power and beyond,” she said. “I’m not ready to give up.”