With the pandemic having seemingly turned a corner in mainland China, authorities there have focused their attention on preventing a new wave of infections coming into the country from overseas.
Since late March, China’s aviation administration has cut the number of inbound international flights to under 134 per week, a mere fraction of pre-pandemic totals. The dwindling number of flights has seen ticket prices soar.
The number of daily travelers, including Chinese citizens, entering the country by air has been limited to 4,000.
There are no official statistics on how many Chinese nationals in the US have lost jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but CNN has seen two groups on WeChat, a “must-have” messaging platform for the Chinese diaspora, in which hundreds of people claiming to be in this situation share stories and exchange information.
Every day, the chat rooms are filled with palpable anxiety over uncertain employment and visa prospects, as laid-off workers and those with visas due to expire soon discuss potential solutions and offer advice.
“I’ve never seen so many visa holders losing their jobs,” said Ying Cao, a New York-based immigration lawyer whose clients are mostly Chinese expats. “It’s worst than in 2008,” she added, when the global financial crisis caused some 2.6 million job losses.
In March, Cao received twice as many inquiries as she would in a usual month. She advises most clients to file for a change of visa status if their grace period is expiring — perhaps to a tourist, student or dependent visa — to buy themselves more time.
Tsui Yee, another New York-based immigration attorney, said many of her clients are facing the same situation. She too has seen a surge in panicked calls from Chinese expats in recent weeks.
“(The immigration environment) was already bad, but this pandemic has propelled it to an even more dire situation,” Yee said. “A lot of my clients who are here on work visas are extremely concerned.”
So far, the US authorities have done little to help those in Tang’s situation.
H1-B visas are the most common type of employment visa in the US, and some 900,000 were issued in the last five years . The visa is tied to a specific employer and is valid for three years, with an option to extend it for a further three years.
In 2019, Chinese nationals accounted for around 15% of H1-B visas issued, according to the US state department.
So far, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has not moved to temporarily extend the grace period for work visa holders whose permits may expire during the coronavirus pandemic. The federal agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Last month, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) sent a letter to USCIS, calling on it to suspend immigration deadlines during the coronavirus emergency. On April 3, AILA filed suite against USCIS to try to maintain the status of non-immigrants and extend immigration-related deadlines.
“USCIS must join many other federal agencies in extending its filing deadlines so that lawfully present foreign nationals in the United States can maintain status during this national crisis,” AILA President Marketa Lindt said in a statement. “By refusing to do so, USCIS is needlessly endangering lives.”
As they wait to see if they can remain in the country, many laid-off Chinese expats are unlikely to be applying for unemployment benefits.
According to oficial data, more than 10 million US workers applied for unemployment benefits in March. But Yee and Cao, the immigration lawyers, both said this figure is unlikely to include visa holders, because many are reluctant to claim the benefits as they worry that doing so could mean they are denied a visa in the future.
Another issue, said Cao, is that even though work visa holders are eligible for unemployment insurance under federal immigration laws, they may not meet specific state laws, which require beneficiaries to be readily available for work.
While H-1B holders might be keen to start right away, they need to get their visa transferred to another company before they can do so — a process that could take months, according to Cao.
“It’s hard to imagine any employer can wait that long,” she added.