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