Menendez, Booker, Sires, Payne demand end Trump shutdown during press encounter at Newark International Liberty airport terminal B. – Newark, NJ – January 8, 2019 (Shutterstock)
By Monsy Alvarado, North Jersey
A New Jersey man who had been stranded in India for weeks amid the country’s catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak has returned home to his family, after U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez intervened.
Ashu Mahajan, 43, of Scotch Plains arrived on Sunday and reunited with his wife, Neha, and two daughters, Sanaa, 15, and Aisha, 9, after Menendez helped him navigate travel restrictions that have trapped thousands of U.S. residents in India.
“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 said Monday at a news conference with Menendez held at Brookside Park. “Yesterday was probably the first night when I saw him and I was able to sleep in peace.”
Ashu Mahajan traveled to India last month to be at the bedside of his 73-year-old father, who died days later of COVID-19. But Mahajan, a software solution architect who is living and working in the United States on an employment visa known as H-1B, needed to get a stamp on his paperwork from the U.S. Consulate in India to return to the Garden State.
The explosion in virus cases in India this spring prompted U.S. Consulate offices to cancel routine visa appointments at the American Embassy in New Delhi and consulates in Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai. Emergency services for U.S. citizens continue, said Marlo Cross-Durrant, a spokesperson for the State Department.
Mahajan tried for weeks to get an interview for his visa stamp but was told he wouldn’t be able to get an appointment until February 2022.
“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 took that decision because that was my dad,” said Mahajan, who received the COVID-19 vaccine before going to India. “While he was in the hospital, I was not even thinking about visa issues. After that, it hit me that I would be separated from my family for more than a year.”
Menendez said the separation would have been a “tremendous hardship” for the family.
“It would jeopardize the very job that makes Ashu’s H-1B visa status and his family’s life here in America possible,” the Democrat said.
Menendez used the plight of longtime U.S. residents stuck in Indian to highlight an immigration overhaul that his party is trying to pass in Washington, though the legislation has so far stalled for lack of Republican support.
“It’s one more reason why we need bold, inclusive immigration reform I have been fighting for in Washington so we can clear out these backlogs,” he said. “A decade of waiting under a legal system to ultimately get your legal residency. It’s time that we modernize that system and protect families.”
Staff from Menedez’s office and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were able to secure Mahajan an expedited appointment last week at the U.S. Consulate office in New Delhi, where he got the stamp he needed. Menendez said his office is working on 10 other cases of families who are trying to get a loved one back from India.
Numerous U.S. residents have been stuck in India, unable to return due to visa requirements and travel limits imposed on flights out of the South Asian country as of May 4. Those restrictions prevent travelers who are not U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents or student visa holders from entering the United States.
“Ours is probably one story, and we got lucky with [Menendez’s] leadership,” said Neha Mahajan, who has been in touch online with many others in the same bind. “There are thousands of people stuck in India, work visa holders, and you won’t see our faces on media like this.”
Among those still trying to get back to the U.S. are Sushil Kumar of Edison, his wife, Seema, and their 10-year-old twins, Aadya and Atharva. Kumar is also living and working in the United States on an H-1B visa.
The family traveled to New Delhi in April to visit his father, who was sick with a lung infection. About eight days after arriving, Kumar himself was infected with COVID-19, forcing him to miss his scheduled flight back on April 25. While he was in the hospital, restrictions were placed on travel from India, trapping them overseas.
In text messages on Monday, Kumar said he had applied for a waiver to enter the United States that would exempt them from travel restrictions. He’s hopeful that he and his family can return next month.
Ashu Mahajan, his wife and their oldest daughter immigrated from India in 2008 and have been in the process of getting their green cards or permanent residency for years. Neha Mahajan said the family’s petition has been approved by the U.S. government. But they’re stuck in a backlog because of federal rules that limit nationals of any one country to no more than 7% of total green cards in any year.
Menendez said the Mahajan family has followed all the rules and shouldn’t have to wait so long to get permanent legal residency.
“He has established himself and his family here, and if our system was working right by now, this family would have their permanent residency card,” the senator said. “But the system is not working right, which is one of the many elements of immigration reform that I’m leading in the United States Senate to change.”
“Being a permanent resident, a visit for Ashu would be totally different than just being a visa holder,” he added.