Nepalis hopeful about Biden presidency

All photos: PRITI THAPA

Many Nepalis based in the US and elsewhere closely followed the US election results. It was key concern because of what the election outcome meant for immigration policies.

Donald Trump was bad news for immigrants, including many Nepalis -- responsible for over 400 executive actions since he took office.

“I did not care about the US election at all in 2016, but I followed the 2020 election very closely, refreshing my phone past midnight to check the results,” says 2020 Diversity Visa (DV) lottery winner Archana KC, who received news about her successful DV-outcome in May 2019. But on 22 June Trump banned migration to the US.

Every year, some 55,000 winners from over 14 million applicants are selected for permanent residency from underrepresented countries, including Nepal. The number of  applicants from Nepal exceeds 600,000 annually. In 2018, 4,097 Nepalis were awarded permanent residency in the US through this program (see figure).

On 22 April, Trump signed a proclamation suspending migrants who pose a threat to the US labour market during the economic recovery following the pandemic, which was further extended on 22 June till the end of the year. This was bad news for the 2020 DV lottery winners, as they lose their spot if they are not vetted for and receive their visas by end of September.

The DV lottery program has been one of Trump’s target programs. He has said it brings the “worst of the worst to the US”. In September, the US District Court Judge ordered the Trump administration to resume processing of DVs for 2020 winners. Prior to the ban, 12,000 diversity visas had already been issued.

Taking into account Covid-19 and its impact on the State Department's visa and consular processing capacity, the judge ordered a total of 9,095 slots to be reserved past the end of 30 September deadline, but it is unsure which of the 43,000 remaining winners will fall in that group.

Stranded Nepali DV winners have built an online community and joke among themselves: ‘It is ironic that DV losers will never understand the pain of DV winners.’

Many have given up hope, but KC is confident it will all work out with the Biden win. “We have come this far and all the effort and energy that has gone into this will not go to waste,” she says, recalling how she had to go around with her one week old daughter to get her a passport. “But just to be on the safe side, I have also applied for the 2022 lottery.”

The other Nepalis impacted by the uncertainty are Temporary Protection Status (TPS) beneficiaries, a humanitarian program that allows those affected by war or disasters to temporarily live and work in the US. Over 411,000 individuals from 10 countries are eligible, including 14,549 Nepalis who benefited from the program after the 2015 earthquake. They include students and those overstaying their visas.

Donald Trump has tried to end this program since 2017, citing countries have recovered from the natural disasters or violent conflicts that caused people to flee. He has faced a number of lawsuits including, one filed by a group of Nepalis and Hondurans. The TPS designation for Nepal is currently expected to be valid till 4 January, 2021.

A recent survey by the group Adhikaar of 324 TPS Nepalis showed that 68.7% reported thinking about this issue once a day or more, 54.3% of respondents think about being deported once a day or more, and 45.9% reported thinking about how TPS would mean not being able to see their children grow up.

Biden’s immigration plan includes protection of TPS from being returned to countries that are deemed unsafe, and to offer a path to citizenship to those who have been in the country for an extended period of time and built lives in the US.

Ramesh is one such Nepali protected under TPS whose future hinges on these decisions. He says: “There is still a lot of uncertainty even under Biden, but we are hopeful that it will be extended given the positive signals from his campaign.”

Things are especially difficult for those with young children who are US citizens, because they may have to leave children behind or stay on undocumented.

Another prominent policy priority for Biden is to reinstate the Dreamers Program on his first day in office, that will allow children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the country. There are only 60 Nepalis under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) out of the 643,560 active ‘dreamers’. Trump’s attempts to dismantle the program in 2017 was blocked by US Supreme Court.

Aalok is one of the 60 Nepali DACA recipients, who has lived in the US since he was six. “I grew up thinking I am a US citizen as my parents did a very good job of hiding this from my sister and I,” Aalok told us on the phone.

But once he found out, Aalok recalls the traumatic experience because of the constant uncertainty. “I am grateful for this program, but I disliked the term dreamers because it was anything but a dream, it was a nightmare, because your identity was often used as a political bargaining tool. It was particularly difficult when I had to get into college because I could not apply for any federal and state funding, but was lucky to get a merit-based scholarship.”

When the networks called Biden’s win last week, Aalok was part of the car honking and dancing celebrations in New York. He says: “It was as if the whole world was breathing a collective sigh of relief.”

Joe Biden also has a positive stance on skilled-visas like the H-1B, which has been contentious under Trump. Nepalis make up only 0.4% of H1B visa holders annually, which is dominated by Indians who make up three-fourths of the visa holders.

The June proclamation also suspended the H-1B and other employment related visas, and  in October the Trump administration announced further restrictions including narrowing the definition of ‘specialty occupations’ to ensure applicants have the degree specific to the job they are applying for, and increasing the salary threshold.

A Nepali with highly specialised programming skills in the Nepal branch of a small software development company says that he wrote the core platform and his managers considered him irreplaceable. He was offered a position  under the L1B specialised worker visa, where his work was appreciated and he moved to a wider role.

“But after two years when it was time to get my visa renewed, it was rejected as my job description was deemed different than the original one,” he says. “The lawyers have filed a green card application, and hopefully things will move quicker under the Biden administration so I can go back to the US.”

Another student, an OPT intern who was working for a multi-billion dollar e-commerce retailer applied for an H1-B, had his visa rejected and had to move back to Nepal.

“The application was rejected over minor points regarding my salary, even though it was above the market rate, and because my area of study was not exactly computer science even though I had the programming skills,” he says.

Biden’s plans regarding skilled visas include reforming the temporary visa system to establish a wage-based allocation process so H1-B allocations are linked to prevailing wages and establish enforcement mechanisms. He also plans to expand the number of high-skilled visas, currently capped at 85,000,  and elimination of the limits on employment-based visas by country.

Last year, 7,409 Nepalis got naturalised in the US whereas 10,201 received permanent residency. The top five states hosting Nepalis are Texas, New York, California, Virginia and Ohio (see figures below). In addition, a significant number of Nepalis also take circuitous paths to reach the US when they do not have access to the legal routes like H1B and DV.

Ramesh went through multiple countries to make it to America. Before he took on the journey, he did not know much about Donald Trump except his obsession with the wall and increased enforcement at the border that would make his journey from Mexico difficult.

It did not deter him. His journey to the US took 2.5 months, which is relatively short to other migrants taking this circuitous path from Kathmandu via Dubai-Russia-Spain-Bolivia-Colombia-Panama-Honduras-Nicaragua-Guatamela-Mexico-US. The trek through the forest in Colombia was harsh when they even passed bodies of migrants who had not made it.

Ramesh and his friends took along six cans of Red Bull for energy during the forest trek. “It would make us feel energized to plod for another few hours,” he recalls. Besides the dangers of the jungle, they were also robbed, had nothing to eat and survived on bananas and water.

He reached Tijuana in Mexico, but soon after jumping over a wall and entering the US, he was detained. “After the torture we had gone through, we did not have much to complain about the detention centre where we were given food, hygiene kits and clothes,” Ramesh recalls.

After spending two months in detention, he was released on a bond of $14,000 as he waits for his asylum case. After over five months, he was eligible to apply for his work permit and social security card. Now, he dreams of bringing his family to the US someday if he is granted asylum. Nepalis form one of the top ten nationalities receiving asylum grants. In 2019, 627 Nepalis were granted asylum, placing it in the 9th highest nationality. (See figure below)

“I don’t really have an opinion on Trump or Biden,” says Ramesh. “As a royalist who was vocal against politicians of the current ruling party, I often got into trouble in my village back home. I came here to earn. The good thing about US is that if you are willing to work hard, you can earn and that is all I am focused on now. And as long as I can work, it doesn’t matter who is President.”

But the work authorisation that Ramesh enjoys as he waits for his asylum hearing has been targeted by Trump who issued two new rules effective August requiring asylum-seekers to wait 365 days before applying for work authorisation instead of the 150 that Ramesh got, and removing the 30 day limit for the work authorisation applications to be processed. These rules were blocked by a judge in September.

Between 2010-2019, there were 4,511unauthorised Nepalis who have been apprehended.  Of them, 1,124 were deemed inadmissible, while 951 Nepalis were returned or removed. Removals involve a formal court order, whereas returns are those who voluntarily go back to Nepal.

Particularly notable is the removal of 169 Nepalis in 2019, a significantly higher number than previous years. (See figure below) Biden has committed to a 100-day freeze on deportations of unauthorised foreigners in the US after he takes office.

Hari is from the same village as Ramesh, and returned last year from the US. He spent six months in a detention center, and unsuccessfully fought his case with support from a Nepali lawyer.

“When they were taking me to the airport, I thought that I was being transferred to another detention center, it was a surprise when I found out I was flying home but there was no other option,” he says.

While in immigration detention, Hari wrote a diary with painful details of his journey to handle his emotions, but he decided to throw it away. “The plan was to turn the diary into a book, that I wanted to title ‘My Journey to America’ to dissuade other Nepalis from repeating my mistake, but no one wanted to listen to my advice in the village,” he explains.

Hari sold his house to pay back the Rs5 million loan he took for his failed journey to the US, and says he is not surprised that his journey was unsuccessful. He says: “I am not sure if having Trump as President versus Biden would have made a difference, but had I landed in another state and not Louisiana, or got a more lenient judge, I may have been released.”

Surya works in a California-based law firm and specialises in asylum cases, and confirms Hari’s hunch: “To get migrants out on bail from states like Louisiana and Georgia is very difficult. California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and DC have it slightly easier. But it also depends on the judges.”

The TRAC project maintained by Syracuse University shows the variation within and across immigration courts in judge denial rates, with a judge in New York who has a denial rate of 3%, and a judge in Houston with a denial rate of 100%.

TRAC data shows that the median bond amount for Nepalis was $15,000 in 2018/2019 and $12,000 in 2020. Research shows that detained immigrants from Nepal have higher odds of being granted bond, but also pay more compared to other nationalities. In 2018, 79% of the 593 detained Nepalis were released on bonds, higher than the national average of 48%.

Joe Biden has big plans from legalising 11 million undocumented workers in the US to expanding the skilled visa program, from reinstating DACA to protecting TPS beneficiaries. Many of these will impact Nepalis.

But a lot hinges on the two Georgia senate runoffs in January, and the health and economic crises that have taken precedence over other topics. Many Nepalis, in America and in Nepal, however, remain hopeful of a kinder America under Biden.

Some names have been changed.

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