N.J. Man Stranded in India Makes It Home—but Others Are Still Stuck
Ashu Mahajan was told he must wait until 2022 to return to his wife and kids in the U.S. after flying to India to care for his dying dad. He’s finally back—but many more are not.
Each night Ashu Mahajan was stranded in India, his two daughters back home in New Jersey asked his wife a variation on a question that continues to be posed in thousands of families separated by a senseless bureaucratic hurdle.
“My girls would ask me, ‘When’s Daddy coming home?’ and I really did not have an answer for them,’” the wife, Neha Mahajan, recalled on Monday.
In the case of the Mahajans, the answer proved to be that daddy would be coming home after Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) got involved as both a senator from their home state and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The U.S ambassador to India was prompted to do what he should have done in the first place and granted Ashu an emergency appointment to get his visa stamped. Ashu then needed only a negative COVID-19 test to board a plane on Sunday back to his family and his work as a software solutions architect.
Meanwhile, all the others kept asking when their loved one—a daddy or a mommy, or maybe both parents or a child—would be coming home. The answer in all the other cases was essentially the same as with the Mahajans: When somebody with enough juice makes a phone call.
The question now for all of us—most notably President Biden—is why that is not being done for everyone. The pandemic itself inflicts enough pain on families without an unnecessary requirement that a visa be stamped in India rather than in the United States, as was the usual procedure until the 1990s.
Late Monday morning, Ashu and Neha and their daughters, aged 9 and 15, were at a Menendez press conference in their hometown.
“It’s great to be here celebrating some very good news, the safe return of Ashu Mahajan from India to his family here in Scotch Plains,” Menendez said. “Welcome back.”
Menendez then took a moment to address Ashu, acknowledging the tragedy that had compelled Ashu to leave home in the first place.
“Let me, first of all, extend my deepest condolences to you, for the loss of your father, and it is what moved you to travel,” Menendez now said. “I did not know him personally, but the fact that you traveled across the globe in the middle of a pandemic to be with him in his final days says so much about the kind of son that you were to him.”
Ashu had flown to New Delhi on April 17 after his 75-year-old father, Ravi, fell critically ill with COVID-19. The father was on a ventilator when Ashu arrived and died three days later. Ashu had then been trapped there because the surge had caused the U.S. Embassy to cancel all visa appointments. Ashu was told that he would have to wait until February of next year to get the necessary stamp.
“It was unthinkable, having the family separated for so long,” Menendez now said.
Then his staff had made calls such as every member of Congress’ staff should be making.
“After being told they wouldn’t see each other for nearly a year, I am so happy that Ashu, Neha, and their girls were reunited yesterday,” Menendez said. “He’s back home in New Jersey with his family where he belongs.”
Menendez noted that the Mahajans would not have been in the predicament to begin with were it not for another procedural logjam, this one extending nearly a decade.
“It's worth noting that this family legally immigrated to the United States,” Menendez said. “They followed all the rules, and had they received the green card that they had a right for and have qualified for since 2012—over nine years ago—they would have never been in this situation.”
He added, “Think about it: A decade of waiting under the legal system to ultimately get your permanent residency.”
Menendez then stepped back from the podium, according Ashu and Neha an opportunity to speak. Neha took off her mask.
“He’s not removing the mask because he’s just come back from India,” she said of her husband. “We’re just taking an abundance of precaution.”
Neha, who is 39, and Ashu, who is 43, both thanked Menendez and his staff.
“If it were not for his support and his office’s support, I don’t know when I would see [Ashu], when the girls would see him,” she said.
Ashu spoke of when he was departing for India back in April.
“I was still debating whether I should go or not because if I go I knew I would get into visa issues,” he said. “But still I had taken that decision because it’s my dad.”
Then his dad had died and he was 7,300 miles from his wife and children.
“It hit me: Now I will be separated from my family,” he said.
Neha noted that theirs is just one story.
“There are thousands of people stuck in India, work visa holders,” she said.
She spoke of all the hardship that would have been avoided if visa stamping took place in the United States.
“So many of us would not have to make a choice whether to take care of their COVID-stricken family in India or to stay back here,” she said. “Many people have had to make the choice.”
Neha spoke of a friend who could not return to India when both his parents fell ill with the virus and died within three days of each other. Neha said she also knows of a mother who was separated from her special needs child when she went to take care of her sick father in India.
And Neha knows of a New Jersey woman who flew back to India to care for her father before he died only for her husband to die back in the United States. The woman has been unable to return because her husband was the primary visa holder.
“They have a 20-year-old U.S. citizen kid,” Neha reported. “They’ve been living here for 20 years. No immigrants should be forced to such hardships ever.”
She spoke for all those who have been trapped by a technicality that has turned monstrous in the pandemic.
“We seek basic fairness,” she said.
A video of the press conference was posted on Menendez’ Facebook page. Among those who watched from India was Payal Raj, who is separated from her husband and their 9-year-old daughter in Tennessee, a plight recounted early this month in The Daily Beast.
She has written to the two senators from her state, Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty.
“Waiting to hear from them, but don’t know how much they will help,” she told The Daily Beast on Monday. “Do you think I should write to Menendez as well?”
She then said, “I am really hoping that they can help. This is soul crushing for me and my family right now.”