In a big relief for thousands of stranded Indian professionals in America due to the coronavirus pandemic, the US government has decided to allow applications by H-1B visa holders for an extended stay in the country.
The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise. The technology companies depend on it to hire tens of thousands of employees each year from countries like India and China.
The US department of homeland security in a new notification has said it recognises that there are immigration-related challenges as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The announcement comes at a time when countries around the world have closed their borders and all international passenger flights have been suspended globally.
The travel restrictions have left a number of H-1B visa holders stranded in the US with their visa permits soon to expire. However, the DHS will shortly start accepting applications for the extension of expiring visas.
"We recognise that non-immigrants may unexpectedly remain in the United States beyond their authorised period of stay due to Covid-19," the DHS said.
"We continue to carefully analyse these issues and to leverage our resources to effectively address these challenges within our existing authorities. The DHS also continues to take action to protect the American people and our communities, and is considering a number of policies and procedures to improve the employment opportunities of US workers during this pandemic," it said.
Generally, non-immigrants must depart the United States before their authorised period of admission expires, it said.
Non-immigrants could apply for an extension of stay (EOS) or change of status (COS) permit. Without a visa extension, thousands of students and professionals in the US would have suffered.
If applicants put in their forms within the specified time frame, their presence will not be taken as "unlawful" and where applicable, "employment authorization with the same employer, subject to the same terms and conditions of the prior approval, is automatically extended for up to 240 days …when an extension of stay request is filed on time," the notification said.
The US Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) added that it "reminds petitioners and applicants that it can consider delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic when deciding whether to excuse delays in filing documents based on extraordinary circumstances."
According to rules, if an employer terminates the contract of an H-1B holder, the employee needs to find new employment within 60 days, in order to retain the visa status. Indian IT workers have been seeking an extension of this 60 day grace period to 180 days.
According to USCIS, Indians are the biggest beneficiaries of the H-1B visa programme.