Mumbai: On June 10, Don Heflin, the minister counsellor for consular affairs at the US Embassy in India, held an hour-long Facebook live session to address queries of thousands of Indian students who have recently received admission letters from US universities but are unable to travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heflin said that “tens of thousands” of slots would open on June 14 to grant the F-1 student visa to as many students as possible before they start their course in September. While he allayed the fear of students by saying that the embassy would allot visas at the same rate as it did before the pandemic, students continue to remain tense.
Vishrutha, who is based in Tamil Nadu, has received an offer letter from Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois. She fears that she may not be able to get a visa on time to realise her American dream.
Vishrutha received her offer of admission in March, following which she applied for the i-20 form, which is needed to book an appointment at the US consulate. But Northwestern took four weeks to process the form. By then, news about a potential flight ban was rolling in.
The US eventually added India to a list of countries whose citizens are barred from entering the US. The list includes countries like China, Iran, the UK, South Africa and Brazil.
Students from these countries are barred from travelling to the US directly and have to quarantine for 14 days in another country if they want to enter the US. Indian students who can’t avail this option have to wait until August 1, when the travel ban may be lifted. The second wave of COVID-19 infections across India also forced US consulates, which grant student visas, to close.
Vishrutha, like thousands of other students in India, is grappling with the possibility that her academic year might go to waste because of logistical issues. “My parents want me to finish my graduate degree as soon as possible, as I am already 23. I didn’t apply to graduate programmes last year as I waited for the pandemic to die down. Now, I feel one more year will be wasted because my fate is dependent on luck and lottery,” she said.
Each year, thousands of Indian students head to the US. In 2020, 193,124 Indian students were enrolled at US universities. This year, a similar trend is expected, but travel restrictions and consulate closures have jeopardised future plans of students.
According to a 2016 estimate, US universities raked in Rs 330 billion ($4.5 billion) from Indian students. If Indian students choose not to head to universities because they can’t secure a visa on time, it will cause a significant dent in the topline of universities. But, Abhishek Chitlangia, the founder of Worldviral, a guidance platform for college admissions, says that there’s not much that universities can do, as their “hands are tied.”
“US universities have been very understanding of the predicament of Indian students, but their hands are tied. There are limited options available. Students should keep their documents prepared and book slots for the visa appointment as soon as embassies open. Constantly monitor the websites and seek help from past students and counsellors. Try to get the visa in the first attempt itself, because a second appointment may be hard to come by,” said Abhishek.
Abhishek also iterated that those students who take a visa interview in a city other than the one they reside in could face the possibility of rejection if they are unable to showcase any local address proof. This has exacerbated the tension of Vishrutha, who is willing to take a slot in another city in case she is unable to secure an appointment in Chennai.
The fight to get that ‘one’ visa slot
Each day, Vishrutha anxiously checks several groups on Telegram, an instant messaging app, to figure out if there is a slot available for her visa interview. Over 40,000 students are part of various Telegram groups, looking for slots in consulates across India.
“Every person on these groups has one minute to log onto the portal and see if there is an interview slot. This procedure was put in place because we can only check the portal for slots a limited number of times each day. If you breach that limit, you are blocked from the portal for 72 hours. Students had no option but to come up with a solution to circumvent this,” she told The Wire.
Booking a slot after being notified on Telegram seems like an easy task, but according to Vishrutha, it’s a mind-numbing, futile exercise which exacerbates her anxiety.
“Imagine that you’re up against 1,000 people every day to book one slot and you fail every single time,” she laments.
Vishrutha said she was eager to attend her classes in person, which is why she is desperately trying to get a visa interview slot. “I don’t want to spend so much money and do the course online. Last year, universities across the world were closed, so students had no option but to do the course online. It’s not the same this year, so it’s frustrating to think a logistical issue could impede my university experience,” she said.
Students whose course starts before September can apply for an expedited, emergency appointment at the US consulates in Hyderabad, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. But the process of allotment has been opaque, further increasing students’ anxiety.
A student, who wished to remain anonymous, said that her course begins at the end of this month. She had to sign a form declaring that she will be in the US by September, as her department won’t hold online classes after that month. If she’s unable to make it to the US, she will have to drop out of the course. She has applied twice for an emergency appointment, but both times her application wasn’t accepted.
“I still want to apply for an emergency appointment, as my case is genuine. The embassy should consider each case as unique instead of rejecting all applications by saying that the slots will open on June 14,” she told The Wire.
Heflin urged students whose course is starting in September not to apply for an emergency appointment as visa slots will be opening up next week. However, students are still considering this as an option, in case the limited number of slots get booked.
Heflin did address the possibility that some students may not get a visa appointment if their course starts before August 1 – the date till which students are barred from entering the US. In that case, he said students would have to contact their university to look for an alternate arrangement.
A reason for the US consulate’s rejection of emergency appointments can be connected to the lockdowns, which have been extended in many cities. The US consulate in Chennai tweeted on June 6 that it would shut all routine appointments until June 11 owing to an extended lockdown and ‘current COVID-19 conditions’.
Considering current COVID-19 conditions, all routine services at U.S. Consulate General Chennai are canceled through June 11, including all routine non-immigrant visa interview appointments, interview waiver appointments, and routine American Citizen Services appointments. (1/2)
— US Consulate Chennai (@USAndChennai) June 6, 2021
According to Ajay Sharma, president of the Delhi-based Abhinav Immigration Services, the rejection or approval of emergency appointments depends on the US High Commission officer.
“The rejection of the slot is at the discretion of the visa officer. The start date for most students heading to US universities is after August 1. Everyone is currently waiting for slots to open up, so there is a huge rush for the emergency appointment. We will have to see how the US embassy will differentiate and approve the slots,” he told The Wire.
Sharma, however, pointed to a silver lining in this grim scenario. He said that if students secure a visa interview, they could be issued a national interest exception (NIE), allowing them to travel to the US before August 1 – circumventing the ban.
The closure of consulates has led to a situation where students are getting their biometric appointment in one city and their interview in another city.
Vishrutha has booked a visa appointment for February 2022, the earliest available at the moment. Her biometric appointment is in Delhi, while her visa interview is in Delhi. She lives in Trichy, which is over 300 km from Chennai. She plans to travel to Chennai by road and take a flight to Delhi for her biometric appointment. After the biometric appointment, she plans to return to Chennai for her visa interview. She hopes to get an appointment in July or August when slots open up next week, but is mentally prepared to travel wherever she gets the appointment.
She says that most students are booking visa appointments and biometric slots in different cities owing to lack of availability, forcing them to travel at a time when the Delta variant continues to affect thousands of Indians.
Meanwhile, India’s ministry of external affairs has requested students stuck in India to share their email ID and phone number with the ministry. However, the circular from the ministry isn’t clear on what kind of help the students would receive and which students would fall under the purview of this assistance.
The circular also didn’t state if the ministry would help students who had already started their courses online or those who came to India from abroad for their vacations and are unable to return.
The battle to get ‘vaccinated’
Getting a visa, however, seems to be the first hurdle for students. Another hurdle standing in their way is vaccination. Abivanth Kanoi, who starts his undergraduate degree at a university in New York in August, was initially planning to take Covaxin, India’s indigenous vaccine, but after a lengthy discussion with doctors and the university, he decided to take Covishield.
Abivanth cites an uncertainty in the approval of Covaxin for the decision to take Covishield. “My university said that if Covaxin didn’t receive approval from the WHO on time, then I would have to take the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer. I didn’t know how my body would react to this cocktail, so I didn’t risk it.”
“I would advise students to email their universities about their situation, as most universities offer vaccination on arrival,” advised Chitlangia from Worldviral.
Several Indian states are currently scrambling to get students vaccinated with both doses before they head abroad. The interval between both doses for Covishield has also been reduced to 28 days for these students. The government plans to proof of vaccination to their passports.
Ankita is a journalist based in Mumbai, India. Her work has been primarily published in Deutsche Welle. In 2020, she received a grant from the National Geographic Society to cover a story on women’s health in urban slums.