The H1B domestic renewal promise

Around 3 million Indians in the United States have been waiting with bated breath for the U.S. State Department to make good on its proposed plan to enable them to renew their H1B visas on American soil. In February this year, Bloomberg Law reported that the State Department would launch a pilot program that would allow H-1B specialty occupation workers and other temporary visa holders to renew their visas in the U.S. instead of having to travel abroad for the same.

Then, in June 2023, during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s U.S visit, the White House released a joint statement from the United States and India, which welcomed the State Department initiative to launch “a pilot to adjudicate domestic renewals of certain petition-based temporary work visas later this year, including for Indian nationals, with the intent to implement this for an expanded pool of H-1B and L visa holders in 2024 and eventually broadening the program to include other eligible categories”.

Prime Minister Modi, too, announced the pilot program to cheering Indian diaspora gatherings during his visit.

Soon after these announcements, a flurry of media reports ensued. The idea of being able to renew one’s H-1B visa without having to endure an 18-hour flight is a welcome prospect. 

Indians face longer queues

Anyone who comes to America for work needs an H-1B visa to enter or re-enter the country. When an Indian employed in America travels internationally, re-entry is contingent upon a valid H-1B visa. Typically, once issued, the visa is valid for one to three years after which it has to be renewed in one’s home country. This is not a process unique to Indian H-1B holders; but given that Indians comprise around 75% of America’s H-1B visa pool,  Indians face disproportionately long queues during renewal. 

It is not just about the inconvenience of delayed visa renewals. It’s about relieving H-1B visa holders from making impossible choices. During the pandemic lockdown, heartbreaking stories abounded about U.S.-based Indians who rushed back home to comfort ailing family members and had to indefinitely extend their stay because they weren’t able to secure a date to renew their work visa. Some suffered the wrath of their employers and bore financial repercussions, while others anticipated the risk and chose not to go back at all, despite the emotional cost. 

Not everyone may qualify for domestic visa renewal

When India Currents inquired about the status of the pilot program, a State Department official said in an email, “We are working to launch the domestic visa renewal pilot for certain qualified applicants who are resident in the United States and renewing an H-1B visa. This would eliminate the need for these applicants to travel abroad to renew visas and open much-needed interview availability for other applicants in our consulates around the world. We intend for the Department to begin accepting renewal applications later this year.” 

When asked who would qualify for domestic visa renewal, the State Department official said, “Specific details about the pilot program, including the scope and requirements for participation, will be announced in a Federal Register Notice closer to the start of the pilot. The Federal Register Notice will provide potential applicants with sufficient time to prepare for participation.”

Recently, The Times of India reported that a draft notice of the pilot program has been sent to the Office of Management and Budget for review and that the final rollout may take a few months.

The pilot program is not a done deal, yet

Earlier this year, Sameer Khedekar, founder and managing attorney of Banyan, a Mountain View-based immigration law firm, met with officials from the state and commerce departments. 

“It was clear from our conversations that they, and the Biden Administration, were serious about streamlining visa services, especially for those in the tech sector,” said Khedekar, who has co-authored a book, titled Unshackled: A Practical Guide For Highly-Skilled Immigrants To Thrive In The United States, along with Soundarya Balasubramani. This week, the duo wrote about the Biden administration’s proposed tweaks to the H-1B process.

“That being said, they have already announced delays, and there are mixed reports coming in about whether we will see any action in 2023, or if it will now occur in 2024,” Khedekar added.

When apprised of the State Department’s official update on the matter, Khedekar said, “Such a rollout will be very complex and even if sign ups begin this year, I can’t see how anyone will be able to actually get their visas stamped until next year.” 

He said the authorities would need to announce the pilot no later than this month so that December-bound travelers can plan ahead. “I also believe that there is a fair chance that the pilot will be scrapped, citing the State Department’s recent success in bringing wait and processing times down in India and elsewhere. Long delays were cited as one justification for the pilot,” he said. 

Khedekar said  it was likely that the rollout of this pilot would only be for a small slice of the population, such as “visa holders that have a high likelihood of success.” According to Khedekar, selection criteria may include the following: only H and Blanket L visa holders, no family members, and only those applying for an extension of the same visa (no first-time applicants). Moreover, he anticipates a limit on the number of applications that can be received to allow for effective online security/biometric checks.

“Ultimately, even if the program is rolled out, people may be disappointed to see that only a few will be able to end up taking advantage of it because the limit may be relatively low,” opined Khedekar.

Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.