When Ashu Mahajan got word that Covid-19 was taking a toll on his 73-year-old father’s health, he booked a flight to India to be by his side.
“When I was leaving for India, I knew my dad was sick. I was still debating whether I should go or not. If I go, I knew I would have visa issues, but still, I had taken that decision because that was my dad that we were thinking about,” Mahajan said during a news conference Monday.
Within days of Mahajan’s arrival on April 17, his father died.
India is currently at the center of the global coronavirus pandemic and although new infection rates appear to be dropping – from 2.7 million the week of May 2-8 to just under 1.8 million in the week up until May 24 – the past week has seen a record number of deaths: 29,330. On May 24 alone, 4,454 people lost their lives. The record daily death rate is 4,529, registered on May 18.
But before the software solutions architect, who lives and works in the US on an H-1B employment visa, could return to his home in Scotch Plains – 12 miles north of Edison, New Jersey, he needed to get his passport reviewed and stamped from the US Consulate in India.
The problem was that he couldn’t get an appointment until Feb. 2022 because of tightening Covid-19 restrictions that forced closures of US embassies and consulates in India.
“While he (Mahajan’s dad) was in the hospital, I was not even thinking about visa issues,” he said. “After that, it hit me that now I would be separated from my family for more than a year.”
CNN affiliate WABC spoke with Mahajan on May 4 when the US began restricting travel to India.
With the help of New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, Mahajan was reunited with his family on Monday.
“Having the family separated for so long would not only be a tremendous hardship – it would jeopardize the very job that makes Ashu’s H-1B status and his family’s life here in America possible,” Menendez said during Monday’s news conference. “I’m incredibly proud of my staff in New Jersey and in Washington with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for working together to bring Mr. Mahajan home.
“They reached out to the State Department,” he said. “They made clear all that was at stake in this case, and they successfully secured an expedited appointment at our embassy in New Delhi so that he could get that passport stamp and board a plane back to America.”
Now that he’s home and reunited with his wife and two daughters, Sanaa, 15 and Aisha, 9, Mahajan told CNN’s Brianna Keilar Tuesday that he feels glad and happy, a feeling he can’t quite explain.
“Every night that we spent on two different continents, my girls would ask me when is daddy coming home, and I really did not have an answer for them,” Neha, Mahajan’s wife, said during Monday’s news conference. “Yesterday was probably the first night when I saw him and I was able to sleep in peace.”
When Mahajan went to cremate his dad, he remembers there being a huge line of ambulances on the cremation ground and said he was scared as the realization of the reality of the situation began to sink in.
“After seeing that, I got myself in the house and I just locked myself in there, I didn’t want to go out, I didn’t want to speak with anyone, in fact even the people who wanted to come and convey their condolences I told them ‘let’s do it over the phone, let’s not meet’ and that’s how it was.”
Travel ban impacts Indian visa holders in particular
As for travel to India, at the beginning of the pandemic, the country quickly closed its borders and banned all scheduled international flights in March 2020.
Due to the second wave of infections, many places are massively reducing, indefinitely suspending or banning travel to and from India. At present, those destinations include Australia, Canada, China (including Hong Kong), Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the United Kingdom (which added India to its “red list”), and the United States.
Although this type of travel restriction isn’t new during the time of Covid-19, it has had a significantly more profound effect when it was imposed on India. That’s because India has had the second-highest number of H-class visas issued to its citizens, second only to Mexico, for years.
“He cannot travel,” Neha told WABC in May. “Why? Because the consulates are closed, and there are no in-person appointments available.”
“They can approve us for visas, but we can only get visas when we land in India to get it stamped,” she said. “Why can’t they do it virtually? Or why can’t we do it here in the United States of America?”
And Mahajan isn’t the only Indian American facing a similar predicament.
“We are currently working with 10 families, but suspect there are likely many more New Jerseyans facing similar situations given our state’s large Indian-American community,” Steven Sandberg, spokesperson for Menendez told CNN.
In 2020 alone, Indians were issued 94,558 H-1B visas given to highly skilled workers, which consisted of 76 percent of all H-1B visas issued last year.
Although the US has similar restrictions for other countries, they are allowing highly skilled worker visa holders in Mexico and Canada to enter the US.
CNN’s Paul Murphy contributed to this report