A Sad Reality of a Non-Immigrant Biomedical Researcher in the US

27 August 2013 by Kausik Datta, posted in Personal, Politics, Rant, Science, Society and Life

(Note: This is a post in which I share some personal anguish surrounding a particular issue; please feel free to skip it altogether if you are not interested in this issue.)

Like me, my wife is a biomedical researcher, and has been working as a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine in my university. I work in immunology and host-pathogen interactions, but my wife moves in more exalted circles of molecular and cellular biology. She has studied small nucleolar RNA, as well as intracellular regulatory mechanisms associated with breast cancer and leukemia. She is about to join the School's pediatrics department, in order to work under an NIH-funded project to find a strategy against a virus that is harmful to newborn babies.

That brings me to the one of the major plights of non-immigrant Indian researchers in the US. We are allowed to work in this country by virtue of having a visa stamped in our passports, and we are obliged to work within the restrictions set by the requirements of specific visa categories in order to maintain the validity of our legal status as students, workers, and so forth. My wife and I have been working in the US and contributing in the field of science and technology for over 11 years. Right from the beginning, we have been paying taxes as well - opting not to receive the benefits of a tax treaty between the US and India.

Over the years, the already-byzantine process of getting a visa stamp has become even more convoluted, complicated, not to mention, time consuming. First, the visa stamping can be done only at a US consulate in another country, preferably - for various reasons - one's home country. Currently, an appointment for submission of documents and visa interview has to be scheduled via a complicated online process. The submission of all required documents is often not enough; especially for the non-immigrant worker visa categories J and H, we are now required to submit detailed and technical answers to a questionnaire about our work. For some strange reason, the application process is not upfront about this questionnaire; it is not available to the applicant beforehand, but must be handed out at the time of the visa interview. The answers are to be written and submitted via email.

The travails don't end there. Following this interview process, our visa applications are put under something known as 'Administrative Processing'. Administrative Processing, done under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security which oversees Citizenship and Immigration now, is this wide, mysterious umbrella under which immigration-related processes must be performed, but which lends itself to no external queries or timelines. And it happens every single time we have to get a visa stamped. We have learnt that this processing indicates a background check. But the whole process is completely non-transparent and impossible to navigate, with no accountability. There is no indication when the processing would finish, and the visa would be stamped in the passport.

And that brings me to our current predicament. I say 'our' because we are affected by it right now, but we are hardly alone.

My wife was to start in her new lab in June, under an H visa. However, the School - possibly in order to stay compliant with new regulations - performed an extensive background check on her, before handing her the H visa papers that she would need in order to schedule the interview. Let me clarify: she is going to be working in the exact same university, in the same School where she has been working for the past few years, but in a different department/division. And the background check took over three months, and she finally received the required documents in time to appear for the visa interview at the US consulate of our home city at the beginning of July. In a week it's going to be TWO MONTHS, and she has not yet received her visa.

There is no recourse, nor any information available regarding the process. She was given an application number, which can be queried on the website of the State Department. There has been no change in her status since the beginning of July. She wrote to the Non-Immigrant Visa Administration at the local US Consulate via email (the only mode of communication available), only to receive a boilerplate reply about ‘administrative processing’ with no tentative dates.

Imagine our plight. My wife is currently stuck in India with no idea when she is going to receive her visa. Meanwhile, the start of her work project is getting inordinately delayed; the delay is putting the work, as well as her employment, in jeopardy – because all Federally-funded biomedical research projects need to be finished in a timely fashion.

We don’t know what to do, or whom to approach for help - or indeed, if this situation can be helped. In utter desperation, I used the online "Open Government" public communication system at the White House website to write to President Obama requesting help. But of course, I don't expect any help or even communication from that quarter. This government may have shown interest in emphasizing STEM education and research, and we may have been long-time, productive STEM researchers - but as non-immigrants, even with immigration intent, we are still small fry. We have been waiting for immigration reform to happen, saturated with the message of Hope and Change that has been the hallmark of this government. But we are not important enough to merit official consideration.

During a speech on immigration delivered on January 29, 2013, President Obama had stated, "The time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform" - emphasizing that such reform would "... strengthen our economy and strengthen our country’s future." The White House even released a Fact Sheet regarding the President’s proposal that includes the following:

'Staple' green cards to advanced STEM diplomas. The proposal encourages foreign graduate students educated in the United States to stay here and contribute to our economy by ‘stapling’ a green card to the diplomas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) PhD and Master’s Degree graduates from qualified U.S. universities who have found employment in the United States. It also requires employers to pay a fee that will support education and training to grow the next generation of American workers in STEM careers.

My wife has done her PhD in a STEM discipline from a top tier medical school in New York City. She has worked her arse off trying to do solid research work in biomedicine. She can haz her Green Card NAO?

Yeah, ri-i-i-i-i-ight. She has been languishing without the due visa stamp for close to two months, with no recourse. And that is the painful reality for us non-immigrant Indian researchers in the US.


18 Responses to “A Sad Reality of a Non-Immigrant Biomedical Researcher in the US”

  1. vanitas Reply | Permalink

    That so totally sucks! I wish I could pull some strings or do more than commiserate with you on this very sad state of affairs. Hang tough, both of you, and stay cool.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you so much, Vanitas. We are trying our best. At least, we have our friends' affections and wishes. :)

  2. Helen Reply | Permalink

    What state is her job in? Maybe your friends in the state can write to their Senators? The Senate has an amazing ability to pull strings with government departments.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      It's in MD, of course, Helen. I have thought of writing to the Senators several times. But I don't know if any of the State Senators would pay any heed to a non-citizen, non-immigrant's plight, however dire.

  3. Tuuli Reply | Permalink

    Wow, that's awful... I also had to wait for ages for my H1B visa, even without this Administrative Processing nonsense.

    Have you contacted the university's international services for advice? What exactly is the status of the application, when you check it on the State Department website?

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Yes, Tuuli. The university's International Services office, otherwise extremely helpful, expressed their inability to do anything in this matter. The State Department website only shows the date submitted, and no other status. And this hasn't changed since the beginning of July.

        • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

          Tuuli, thank you for finding that link. However, as I wrote in the post, the status message of my wife's application does mention Administrative Processing... and nothing else. There is, unfortunately, no 'contacting the consulate again' - they are not amenable to such attempts at contacting them. Emailing the available, single email address produces a standard boilerplate reply (as I mentioned in the post).

  4. Amblebury Reply | Permalink

    I really feel for both of you, and all the others in your predicament.

    As long as there have been human populations, there has been movement of populations. We need to accept this reality and make it a positive, productive phenomenon for all.

    Immigration policies all over require reform. Start with acceptance of the reality of human nature and circumstance. Continue with humane and sensible policies and procedures.

  5. Patricia J Hawkins Reply | Permalink

    I say, give it a try. Research the senators so you know their interests. You certainly make a case for the benefits the US gets from you and your wife being here, and for the harms to the US from this delay! Also, you and your wife presumably have coworkers or supervisors (or deans or university presidents), who are US citizens who are affected by this, and might be happy to write letters supporting you. Not to mention, it's a human injustice, and even senators have been known to have compassion for non-constituents.

    Good luck!

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you. This is an avenue I must try. One problem I see is that I wouldn't know if such a letter or letters would have the desired effect. The whole process is remarkably closed, in a cloak-and-dagger fashion. But I guess it cannot hurt to try.

  6. Jack Reply | Permalink

    I'm a practicing immigration attorney. I'm curious whether your wife was in the U.S. to begin with and, if so, why she left to get the visa stamp? In many if not most cases, people in this situation can change their status automatically and are not required to leave the U.S. for the visa stamping. Regardless, your point about "administrative processing" is well taken. "Administrative processing" generally translates to "Don't hold your breath."

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you for your message, Jack. My wife was indeed in the US to begin with, as you say; adjustment of status does happen automatically, and is not an impediment to work in the US, but the absence of a visa stamp severely restricts any movement to outside the US for the purpose of, say, leisure travel or conferences. Simply put, once she leaves the US for any purpose, she cannot get in without the visa stamp in her passport.

  7. Maria Reply | Permalink

    That is unfortunate. One year after I got my GC, I was laid off from my academic research position due to funding issues. I am still looking for something suitable and have considered shifting to a clinical research position instead.

  8. Madhurima Reply | Permalink

    Hi,

    Visa issues and especially this "Administrative Processing" which is now practically routine have caused immense stress to scientists and losses in research. I have seen so many of my brilliant scientist friends and colleagues stuck in limbo because the lawmakers simply don't understand how valuable their contributions (past and potential) are.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you for your note, Madhurima. Yes, this has been a continuing issue for many of the immigrant researchers and scientists working in the US. The saddest part is that I have no idea if and when this situation will ever change for the better.

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