Indians struggle to return home despite visa backlog at US Embassy

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When Pallavi Rao found out her father had a medical emergency and was in the intensive care unit, her first thought was to go see him immediately, but she couldn’t. Her father is in India and she lives in America on a visa that needs to be renewed. If she left for India, she would not be allowed to return to the United States

Rao, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is one of thousands of Indians on US work visas unable to return to their home countries due to a backlog embassy, ​​causing them to miss milestones, family events and even funerals. The U.S. Embassy in the Indian capital, New Delhi, currently has a wait time of 833 days for a visitor visa appointment, more than two years, according to the department’s website. ‘State. The wait time for student visas is 430 days and the wait for non-immigrant visas is 390 days.

According to the website, other cities have much faster wait times for visitor visas: just two days for Hong Kong and Beijing and 11 days for Tokyo. A State Department spokesperson told TODAY that the delay in India is specifically due to a combination of high demand in the country and a shortage of personnel caused by the pandemic.

For Rao, problems at the embassy mean she hasn’t been home for 3½ years. Although she only needs a renewed stamp on her visa, which only requires filing her documents without an interview, the caveat is that the documents must be filed in your home country. Renewals require returning to the home country, getting an appointment to drop off the documents at the embassy, ​​and waiting for them to be returned.

Thinking the process would be quick, she started looking for dates in January. It will take six months before she manages, after logging in every day, to get an appointment – for October 2023.

“It looks like a golden cage,” Rao told TODAY by phone. “With my dad’s admission to intensive care, I feel like I’m being asked to choose between having a good job… and wanting to travel. It’s absurd.”

Rao said she was one of about 200,000 Indians in a Telegram group who post information about available dates every day. Although she was able to get an appointment for next year, she said it was not ideal as she has to teach during the school year, so she is trying to reschedule her appointment, especially due to of his father’s health.

“If the worst happens and I have to leave the house… I have to talk about it at work, and if I never come back, do I have someone who can sell my furniture? I think about the worst case scenario what could happen , and it shouldn’t be like that,” Rao said. “You think it’s the functional arms and legs of bureaucracy in the United States, but it’s just appalling that there hasn’t been communication, really.”

“Golden Handcuffs”

For many Indians, the conflict of having a job in the United States but being stuck in limbo between the two countries is confining, Debarghya Das said. Das, who was born in India but lived in America on a green card, compiled stories of Indian families struggling with embassy wait times in a viral Twitter feed that garnered more than 5,000 likes over the course of of the last two weeks.

Because he gave up his green card when he returned to India, Das is now one of thousands of Indians living in America on a work visa.

“I have friends and people I don’t know on Twitter who have seen their parents or grandparents die, a cousin’s wedding, all kinds of important family events, and they just can’t go back,” Das said. “They call it the golden handcuffs – you have a great job, you live in America, but you really can’t do anything.”

Das explained that the embassy website only allows a maximum of three connections per day, so some members of the Telegram group have created Chrome extensions and bots to monitor appointment slots in order to maximize the chances of getting one. He said the practice has become “a way of life”.

Das said he believed the wait times at the embassy were due to a snowballing backlog of cases awaiting documentation. He said he knows people who have been in the country for 15 years and only recently got their green card approved.

The State Department spokesperson said the department currently has doubled consular hiring from a year ago and is actively working to onboard new hires to address staffing shortages.

Despite waiting months, Das was able to get an appointment last month to renew his visa, returning to his country of birth just to drop off his paperwork.

“The website is absolutely atrocious and difficult to use. Even when you try to book things, it will time out and block you unexpectedly,” Das said. “It’s so frustrating…a lot more people in the past two years that I know of have seriously considered other countries as options than ever before.”

The State Department spokesperson did not respond to complaints about the website.

Stuck between

Sohini Chattopadhyay, Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, returned to India in 2021 to renew her visa, thinking it would be a quick process. Instead, she stayed there for nine months until she finally got an appointment, even though she only had to file her documents without an interview.

Although her trip to India also allowed her to complete research for her doctorate, she said she did not expect the wait to be so long. But then the consulates closed around the time she was returning to India for a renewal.

“I lost my dad in 2019, and my mom doesn’t have a US tourist visa…and my sister is in the US and is supposed to come to India to get a renewal for her (visa) but he there is no slot available,” Chattopadhyay said. “So basically my mom can’t go to the US, my sister can’t come back, and I’m the only one with a visa.”

Chattopadhyay said her mother started looking for tourist visa appointments last year and still hasn’t been able to get one.

The State Department’s website notes that there is a process to expedite appointments, but you must already have a confirmed appointment date and request a slot, which are “very limited,” according to its website. . Although there are companies that specialize in expediting passports and visas, TODAY has confirmed with a consultant from CIBT, a global immigration and visa service provider, that they are not able to expedite passports and visas. expediting US visas to India at the moment due to backlog.

Chattopadhyay, meanwhile, said her whole visa renewal experience showed her what it’s like to be in a country where she feels the burden of not being a citizen, which led her to ” significantly rethink” where she wants to live.

“At the end of the day, it’s a systemic failure on their end – the US immigration system and how it works and the whole visa system needs to be improved so that this crisis doesn’t exist,” he said. she declared. “We also know that countries like India, and many other countries, supply a lot of intellectual labor to the United States, and that’s probably not the best way to deal with that.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the government agency that oversees legal immigration, did not respond to a request for comment.

Skip life

For many Indians, long waiting times at the embassy mean missing out on life events, both good and bad. For Anika, who asked that her real name be withheld so as not to harm her chances of getting her visa renewed, waiting months for an appointment meant missing her grandfather’s funeral.

“I was very close to my grandfather and he passed away, and this year was his first birthday (death anniversary ritual) and I wanted to at least make it happen, but I couldn’t find a date. you,” Anika said.

She also graduated from college during the pandemic and moved between cities for different jobs, which were milestones her family missed.

After months of frustration without “a tingle of hope”, she was finally able to secure an appointment last week for November, after Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs Don Heflin of the US Embassy in India announced on Facebook Live that it would open 100,000 date slots.

If she had the chance to speak to the US Embassy, ​​Anika said she would ask them to make arrangements to facilitate the visa process, particularly for renewals, so that people in special circumstances can get home quickly and not have to worry about getting home. United States (The U.S. Embassy in India referred requests for comment to the State Department.)

Although she remains cautiously optimistic now that she has been granted an appointment, Anika said the process has taken a huge mental toll.

“We’re alone in this country, and a lot of families are back home. It’s getting really, really hard mentally to keep going and do your job,” she said. “And if your loved ones or someone else is in a state of distress, you want to be there for them, but if you can’t, it’s really tough. It’s really hard.”

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