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Trump's Freeze On H-1B Work Visas Disproportionately Affects Indians

The Trump administration's latest freeze on certain types of work visas, designed to protect American jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, is having a disproportionate effect on workers in India.

The executive order, signed Monday by President Trump, extends a ban on green cards issued outside the United States and adds several types of work visas to the freeze, including the H-1B visa for skilled workers. Last year, 72% of those visas were granted to Indians.

The change means tens of thousands of Indians who planned to come to the U.S. this year will have to scrap or delay their plans.

On Tuesday, Sunny Kumar Hirpara awoke in India to news of a temporary ban on his exact type of visa.

"I woke up at like 5 o'clock in the morning, and I saw the messages. I almost started crying," Hirpara says.

Hirpara, 26, earned a master's degree in the U.S. and landed a job as an electrical engineer in Irvine, California. In March, he returned to India to visit his parents and to convert his student visa to an H-1B, sponsored by his company. Then the pandemic hit. His paperwork was delayed.

"I'm sad that I invested five years studying in the U.S. and preparing for a job there," says Hirpara.

Last year, nearly 280,000 Indians were granted H-1B visas or renewed them. New ones are capped at 85,000 annually. The process is now frozen through Dec. 31, 2020.

In some cases, families separated by the pandemic now face more time apart. Social media is flooded with pleas to lawmakers from H-1B holders who temporarily left the U.S. and worry they won't be allowed back.

Many have advanced degrees and work for U.S. tech giants. Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted that he's "disappointed" by Trump's order. He was once an H-1B recipient from India.

"We as a country have been such a vibrant economy and society because of our ability to draw talent from around the world," Nisha Biswal, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, tells NPR. "If we stop, I think that will adversely impact our ability to be at the top."

India's IT industry association called the freeze "misguided & harmful" and urged the U.S. government to shorten restrictions to 90 days. Some Indian IT companies with employees in the U.S. will also be affected.

Others, though, suggest that the visa freeze could be a boon to Indian companies, and even to the government.

"This is a fantastic opportunity," Vikram Ahuja, co-founder of Talent500, a recruitment firm in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, told India's NDTV channel. He said working from home — now common during the pandemic — could change how tech companies hire.

"The world is changing, and I think as long as great companies seek great talent, then location and physical proximity becomes irrelevant," Ahuja said.

He said H-1B visa holders could even still work for U.S. companies, but from home in India — thus paying into Indian tax coffers instead of U.S. ones.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.