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Professor held up by visa troubles to arrive next week

September 21, 2018

After being unable to enter the country for the first few weeks of the semester, Visiting Assistant Professor of Physics Varun Makhija has finally received the H-1B visa that will allow him to travel to Bowdoin. He hopes to be on campus next week. Many international workers have faced similar delays in the visa obtaining process since President Trump issued his executive order, “Buy American, Hire American,” in April of 2017.

“I have traveled to the U.S. every summer for conferences and stuff like that. It’s never been a problem,” Makhija said about the delay in the process of obtaining his visa in a phone interview with the Orient. “I suspect—I don’t know for sure—but my best guess is it has something to do with the fact that there’s just a lot of complications with immigration right now.”

Makhija has been living in Ottawa, Canada for four years doing research in physics at the National Research Council. He is from India and has Indian citizenship, but he completed all of his post-secondary education in the United States. As an undergraduate, he attended Drew University in New Jersey where he majored in physics. He received his Ph.D. in experimental physics with atomic and molecular physics from Kansas State University.

“I lived in the U.S. for 10 years,” said Makhija of the time he spent as a student. “In all of those 10 years, I could not have done anything that would have allowed me to continue living here.”

In order to come to Bowdoin to start teaching, Makhija had to apply for an H-1B visa, a document which allows skilled foreign workers to live and work in the United States. While there have not been any legal changes instituted since “Buy American, Hire American” was signed, bureaucratic changes have made the process of obtaining an H-1B much more difficult.

Makhija said that, in previous years, a person from India may have been able to secure a visa with much less difficulty. The process would have involved going to a U.S. embassy for an interview in which they would demonstrate proof that they had enough funds to travel and that they would be returning to India and not be attempting to stay in the United States as a permanent resident. If the applicant was able to answer the consular officer’s questions in a satisfactory manner, they were awarded a visa at the interview itself that would allow them to travel to the United States within the next two days.

This process, however, has never been open to Makhija. As a physicist, he has always undergone extra background checks through the Department of State.

“If you were a professional physicist, and you wanted to go to the U.S. [or] if you’re from a country like India which has a history with nuclear weapons and stuff like that … you have to go through an additional background check,” said Makhija.

Makhija explained that, in past years, this supplemental background check has taken about a month. This time, however, it took about twice that long before he received his visa. This may be due to new regulations which require that every applicant for an H-1B visa from India undergo the same extra background check to which Makhija has been subjected for years.

“It does not matter the profession—everyone who is applying for the visa has to go through this. It’s something the administration has called ‘extreme vetting,’” said Makhija. “This is not new for me, but for every other profession, this is a new thing. That’s my best guess for why there’s a delay, because the number of applications that these guys are processing now has probably skyrocketed.”

Makhija can only make guesses based on his observations and knowledge of new bureaucratic practices as to why it took so long for him to receive his visa. There is no way to communicate with the official at the U.S. Department of State who conduct the supplemental background check. He explained that even the consular officer who would conduct his personal interview and send his application to the Department of State does not receive any information or communication, including estimates of how long it will take for a visa to be issued.

“It’s completely a black box,” said Makhija. “They don’t tell you how long it’s going to take. They don’t tell you what they’re doing. Nothing.”

These supplemental background checks, however, are not required for applicants from all countries. They are required for applicants from many countries with nuclear programs or national security concerns.

“Pretty much every country except for Western European countries, I would bet, you would have to go through this,” said Makhija.

Before Makhija was able to apply for an H-1B visa, Bowdoin had to first apply for a work permit through U.S. Customs and Immigration. Makhija explained that he communicated with Bowdoin’s immigration lawyers throughout this process, which was much shorter, partly due to the fact that Bowdoin pays extra for premium processing which guarantees that a work permit decision will be made within 15 days of the application submission. There is no similar option that exists to expedite the process of obtaining an H-1B visa.

Having applied for visas in both the U.S. and Canada, Makhija is able to compare the processes around obtaining visas in each country. He explained that the Canadian process is much easier and more transparent.

“Canada, in general, is far more open. For instance, I’ve lived here for four years, but I’m eligible to live and work here for the rest of my life if I want to,” said Makhija. “If I want to live and work in the U.S. for the rest of my life after moving there, that’s a lot … that’s not easy at all.”

Makhija also stressed that the College has been very professional throughout the entire visa process.

“As hard as the U.S. immigration process has been, Bowdoin has been incredible with everything,” he said.

In an email to the Orient, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood affirmed the College’s commitment to assisting students, faculty and staff who are applying for visas.

“We have not seen any substantive changes in the process in recent years and don’t foresee anything that would make this process more difficult, and that includes the process for students,” wrote Hood in his email. “That said, if things do change, we will continue to do whatever we can to assist.”

Hood also said that faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy have been filling in for Makhija and teaching his two courses—Introductory Physics I and Introductory Astronomy—in his absence. They will continue to do so until he arrives on campus.

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