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Explained: Guidelines for non-immigrant visa holders in the US amid COVID-19

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Under US law, non-immigrant visas do not allow its holders to live and work in the US permanently.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: April 16, 2020 7:56:19 am
Explained: Guidelines for non-immigrant visa holders in the US amid COVID-19 Coronavirus (COVID-19): People gather to watch the sun set behind the Throgs Neck Bridge at LIttle Bay Park Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo: Frank Franklin II)

The US government has said it would allow non-immigrant visa holders, such as those on the H1-B visa, to apply for an extension of their stay in the country. The decision comes as a timely respite for thousands of Indian workers, students, and tourists stranded in the US due to the novel coronavirus.

Under the US law, non-immigrant visas (unlike immigrant visas), do not allow its holders to live and work in the US permanently.

“Generally, non-immigrants must depart the United States before their authorized period of admission expires. However, we recognise that non-immigrants may unexpectedly remain in the United States beyond their authorised period of stay due to COVID-19,” the US Department of Homeland Security said in a notification.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Indians in the US amid the pandemic

In recent weeks, Indian workers living in the US on non-immigrant visas have been increasingly concerned about whether they would be able to retain their jobs, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing a severe economic upheaval.

For years, the H-1B visa has served as a common passage for Indians into the US. Out of the 4,19,637 H-1B applications in 2018, 74 per cent came from India. Most beneficiaries are aged 25-34, and are in fields involving computers.

Visa holders get a 60-day period to find another job when their contracts expire – they have to leave if they fail to do so.

Indian students and tourists have also been concerned due to flights being cancelled and borders being closed globally.

Addressing these fears, last Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla discussed with the US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E Biegun the issue of extending the expiring H-1B visas of skilled Indian professionals stuck in the country because of the lockdown in India, sources told The Indian Express.

Earlier, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had also asked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to extend the visas of Indian students and skilled professionals.

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The Congress party, too, last Friday asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to impress upon the US not to terminate the H-1B visas of Indians living in the country.

What the US’ new notification on visas says

The US Department of Home has now allowed non-immigrant visa holders to apply for an extension to stay in the country. “Most non-immigrants can mitigate the immigration consequences of COVID-19 by timely filing an application for extension of stay (EOS) or change in status (COS),” the notification states.

“Where applicable, employment authorisation with the same employer, subject to the same terms and conditions of the prior approval, is automatically extended for up to 240 days after I-94 expiration when an extension of stay request is filed on time,” it says, adding that if applied on time, non-immigrants would not accrue unlawful presence.

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The notification also extends flexibility for late applications, and says that the government may excuse the failure to file on time if caused due to extraordinary circumstances beyond control, such as those that may be caused by COVID-19.

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