Workers disinfect an airport in Wuhan, China. While the country appears to have contained the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese overseas are facing a struggle to return home due to severe restrictions on travel.
Boston CNN Business  — 

After her company laid her off last month, Tang Chen couldn’t sleep. For days, her heart kept racing. There was one question at the front of her mind: would she be able to stay in the United States?

Tang comes from eastern China’s Zhejiang province, but has worked in the US since 2014. Her H1-B work visa is due to expire later this year, so the travel firm where Tang worked as a software developer in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, had begun the arduous process of applying for a green card, which would allow her to live and work in the US permanently.

The 33-year-old was so confident about building a life in America, she even bought an apartment in the US.

But when Tang was made redundant on March 13, she didn’t just lose her source of income — she lost her visa status. Now her former employer has decided not to proceed with her green card application, her path to permanent residency has been lost, too.

A sign showing the closure of a US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office in Washington. Immigrants in the US have faced uncertainty over their work visas due to the coronavirus crisis.

When H1-B visa holders like Tang lose their jobs they have 60 days to file for a change of status — such as becoming a tourist or student — or find a new employer willing to sponsor their work visa.

If they can’t get a new job or change their status, they have to leave the US — or illegally overstay their visa. If they leave the US after having overstayed for more than 180 days, they could be banned from reentering in future.

Finding a job in the current climate is tough, let alone finding an employer willing to shoulder the additional costs and paperwork of visa sponsorship. Since she was laid off, Tang has not had much luck getting interviews and is not optimistic about being hired in the middle of a pandemic with a recession looming.

She had resigned herself to going back to China — only to find out that she can’t. There are no seats available on any direct flights in April, and Tang is worried that cobbling together a multi-stop trip could put her at risk of catching the virus.

“Even if I want to go back now, I can’t get a flight ticket,” she said. Instead, she’s desperately applying to university to get a student visa that will allow her to remain in the US legally.