Thousands of Indian wives might not be able to work in the US under new Trump proposal

Shackled in the land of the free.
Shackled in the land of the free.
Image: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
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Spouses of Indian immigrants in the US may be headed back to their golden cages.

Ending months of speculation, the Trump administration disclosed its plans to discuss a proposal to discontinue the work permits of H-4 visa holders in 2018. The notice, titled Removing H-4 Dependent Spouses from the Class of Aliens Eligible for Employment Authorisation, was posted on Dec. 14 as part of its Unified Agenda, a bi-annual list of regulations by various federal agencies.

The H-4 visa is granted to the spouses of long-term H-1B holders.

If the Trump administration follows through on the notice, it will be overturning a two-year-old rule introduced after intense lobbying efforts during the Obama era. The rule allows H-4 visa-holders whose spouses were awaiting green card approval to work in the US.

Any discontinuation of work permits will have an outsized impact on thousands of Indian H-1B workers and their families living and working in the US, whose green card application procedures can stretch upwards of 12 years. Before this rule was introduced, the spouses of H-1B workers were fully dependent on them during this time, unable to work outside.

“I could not work and I realised I did not have a sense of purpose,” Meghna Damani, who left her advertising job in Mumbai to marry and move to the US, told Quartz last year. She battled severe depression during this time, a manifestation of the pressure that many H-4 spouses feel after years of remaining unemployed just to be able to live with their partners. “I wanted to just die. To no longer feel this guilt, this wastefulness. To no longer feel like a burden.”

Indians are the largest beneficiaries of H-4 visas, holding nearly 80% of the 125,000 issued in 2015 alone. Women account for 90% of all H-4 visas. Over 41,000 of these spousal work authorisations were approved in the year ended September 2016, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall). During the next year, more than 36,000 applications were approved through June.

The H-4 visa debate was sparked by an April 2015 lawsuit by “Save Jobs USA,” a group of computer-industry workers who said they had been replaced by foreign-born employees. In February this year, the US government asked for a 60-day pause to allow the new administration to assess the case.

The Trump administration has been cracking down on immigrant workers since it took over earlier this year. It temporarily halted premium processing for H-1B visas, wherein visa applications are processed within 15 days for an additional fee compared to the standard three-to-six month procedure. The H-1B application for computer programmers was also made several notches tougher. In April, president Trump signed the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order with the promise of bringing jobs back to the country.