PRESSURE POINTS

The immigration battle that might push H-1B families to self deport

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The H-1B visa program, the primary way high-skilled workers can come to the US, is the visa of choice for Indian men. In 2017, more than 70% of all H-1Bs were given to Indians, and close to 80% of those Indians were men.

But they’re not the whole story. “There is this misconception that the H-1B program is really just men coming to work, and then going back to their home countries,” says Amy Bhatt, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Baltimore, Maryland County. “In reality, it’s not just individuals moving for work but entire family units crossing borders.”

Amy is the author of High-tech Housewives, a book that dives into a decade worth of research on the wives of H-1B workers. The spouses of H-1B workers come to the US on a different visa, called the H-4. Until 2015, this visa came with a pretty big catch—you could live in the US, but you couldn’t legally work here.

Since many H-1B holders are Indian men, their spouses tend to be Indian women. Bhatt says that because of the way marriage tends to work in India, highly educated men typically marry highly educated women. So the women that accompany the men on the H-1B tend to be high-skilled themselves. “It’s hard to then come to the United States and to be told, no, your qualifications, your expertise, your skills, they’re not welcome here,” says Bhatt.

In 2015, the Obama Administration passed a rule that allowed some H-4 visa holders to work. If your partner, the H-1B holder, was far enough along in the green card process or had been residing in the US for more than six years, you could apply for a work permit. Since then, about 100,000 spouses on H-4 visas have applied for work permits. More than 90% of them are women.

But in 2019, this group of largely women may lose their right to work again. Save Jobs USA, an organization of former IT workers who claim to have lost their jobs to H-1B holders, has filed a lawsuit arguing the Obama-era rule makes it more likely that foreign workers will replace American workers. John Miano, the lawyer representing Save Jobs USA, argues that rescinding the Obama-era rule is about much more than whether a group of largely women may no longer be able to legally work in the US. It’s about the strength of the entire H-1B program. “Eliminating the ability of spouses to work will reduce the incentive for H-1B workers to remain in the United States,” says Miano.

What Miano is describing might already be happening.“Canada is an option. Australia is another option. Japan just opened its borders to skilled immigrants,” says Neha Mahajan, a current H-4 visa holder with a work permit. “There are plenty of options. America is no longer the land of dreams.” Quartz talked to some of the women who are among the many thinking twice about whether America is the best place for them, or their families. Watch the video.

Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.

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