Analysis: Sympathy for Indians Stuck in Visa Backlog

Oct 17, 2021
2:59 PM

A devotee prays at the Karya Siddhi Hanuman Temple that serves the Asian Indian community in Frisco, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two of the most prolific reporters on Capitol Hill today are Indian Americans Sahil Kapur of NBC News and CNN’s Manu Raju.

If you watch political television stateside in English, you’ve seen these guys. Kapur and Raju are aces of the Capitol beat —an immense, living network of laws, agendas, relationships, and the hallways that connect it all.

In press scrums, both have bookended my immigration inquiries to lawmakers with follow-up questions like, “And when can we expect an answer on that?”

Beyond the allyship of citizen colleagues in the Capitol complex, my immigration reporting at Latino Rebels has been discovered by a community of Indian immigrants living in a visa backlog akin to immigrant purgatory.

This group of over a million is not undocumented. They are here with permission from the federal government and were admitted at customs checkpoints on visas that are family- or employment-based.

In Congress, the visa backlog has been left almost completely out of policy negotiations over immigration reform through the budget reconciliation bill.

Dwarfed in size and visibility by the larger immigration movement advocating for at least 11 million immigrants from all over the world (mostly Latinos) who skipped the customs checkpoint altogether, the visa backlog movement has been low-key, white-collar, and ignored so far by the 117th Congress.

“We documented immigrants in the employment backlog are law-abiding, tax-paying, high-skilled, productive members of the society,” said Srihari Murali of Texas through Telegram. “Many of us are doctors and scientists, artists and engineers, innovators and leaders, and create thousands of new jobs through our work […] but are denied the freedom to switch jobs, vote or freely travel, all based on race (our country of birth), stuck in decade long queues.”

Some in the backlog community call their employment in the United States a form of “indentured servitude,” losing out on benefits and advancement to their citizen counterparts at work.

“The thinking by many employers is that because they are sponsoring our visas, they’ve already helped us enough already,” said a backlogger in the Midwest.

Country caps make Indian immigrants the bulk of visa backlog residents in the United States. GoFundMe campaigns for the self-deported are common among them.

Many blame Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the second-most powerful Democrat in the Senate and the Majority Whip since January. Durbin also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he has served on for 22 years.

Durbin has led the immigration reform charge by Democrats during this Congress, but so far has come away empty-handed.

“It was entirely up to [Durbin] to include or exclude us,” said Rishi Jala in Georgia. “There was no other opposition. Nobody stood up for us.”

“Senator Durbin has long believed that immigrants from India are second-class citizens and deserve to be treated as such,” said Hildingur Mahanti, vice president of Immigration Voice, which advocates for relief for the backlogged immigrant community. “It is completely costless, both politically and resource-wise, to help the Indian immigrant in the backlog.”

A pair of Durbin-led rejections by the Senate parliamentarian has activated a nationwide network of immigrant advocacy groups suddenly and seemingly at the table in reform negotiations over the budget process.

A third pitch now in the works seems to leave Indian backlog immigrants out again, though Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) has said there could be two more pitches to the parliamentarian coming.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Indian-American congressman from Durbin’s home state, has proposed addressing the backlog through reconciliation.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthy (D-IL) on addressing the visa backlog in BR from Congress

“As an immigrant this is personal to me,” Krishnamoorthi told Latino Rebels last month in an interview on the House steps.

Another Indian American in the House, Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), told Latino Rebels she “absolutely” supports addressing the challenges of the visa backlog community.

Indian-American Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) expressed support for removing country-level caps via a bill he’s been working on with Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a top lieutenant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Back on the Senate side, the third immigrant relief pitch to the parliamentarian is reportedly focused on granting undocumented immigrants advanced parole. Relief for the Indian backlog community is not yet on the table. With two more immigration pitches in the works for the parliamentarian, it remains to be seen if Congress will answer Krishnamoorthi’s call to address the backlog through reconciliation.

Kapur and Raju bookending my immigration questions to members of Congress can be seen as a metaphor. Latinos are the largest, most visible immigrant group in America’s political arena today, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. After two pitches rejected by the parliamentarian and one more in the works offering limited parole for undocumented people, the Indian visa backlog may be the last best hope Democrats have at immigrant relief through the sprawling budget bill.

For Indian Americans languishing in the backlog of immigration purgatory, finding allies in the undocumented community of mostly Latinos and black people seems like an obvious platform pairing.


Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports