Under Trump, Indian H-1B wives fear becoming second-class citizens again

No work here.
No work here.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Rashi Bhatnagar gave up her career as a journalist when she left India in 2009 and moved to the US on an H-4 dependent visa. For years, she struggled with frustration because her visa status did not allow her to work in the US. But in 2015, she saw a sliver of hope after the erstwhile Barack Obama administration allowed the spouses of H-1B workers awaiting green card approval to apply for work permits of their own.

At that time, Bhatnagar was looking after her infant son and was in the middle of moving to another state in the US. So, although she applied for and secured her employment authorisation document (EAD), she never ended up using it. Only now was she preparing to getting her career back on track and working to set up her own company—that is until last week’s developments took her back to square one.

On Dec. 14, the Donald Trump administration disclosed its plans to discuss a proposal to discontinue the work permits of H-4 visa holders in 2018. If the move goes through, it’ll have an outsized impact on the spouses of countless Indian H-1B workers, and their families, in the US, where green card application procedures can stretch upwards of 12 years. Since 2015, over 104,000 spouses were granted EADs. A large number of these would likely be from the sub-continent as Indians receive a major chunk of the H-1B visas every year.

“I was about to get my company registered. I wanted to hire people. It would have generated employment and yielded taxes,” Bhatnagar told Quartz. “Right now, I have put my business plan to a halt because of this sudden news.”

The damage

On the Facebook group “H-4 visa—a curse,” started by Bhatnagar in 2011, hundreds of women—90% of all H-4 visa holders are women—have shared their dismay and resentment over the years. Most are stories of loneliness and boredom. Less often, there are accounts of depression, anxiety, and even domestic violence.

Then there’s the question of money because an H-4 spouse remaining unemployed can often put a lot of financial pressure on families. Single-income households find it difficult to cope with heavy mortgages and other payments as they try to build a life in the US, said Poorvi Chothani, managing partner at an immigration law firm LawQuest.

And the constraints extend far beyond realising the American dream.

“What we don’t often talk about is remittances,” said Divya Ravindranath, a PhD candidate at Washington University who is researching the implications of visa regulations and labour market restrictions on Indian immigrant women in the US. “Often, a woman can’t even think about supporting her parents (back in India) because the husband is already supporting his and they don’t have enough income,” she added.

Societal pressures back home also start playing up. “People get embarrassed to go into social gatherings. They feel a sense of loss,” Ravindranath said. “Women who could have done well in India—they’re highly educated and had stable jobs in the past—are now sitting at home.”

That includes women like Sarika Kadam, who moved to the US after her arranged marriage to an IT professional in 2002. “My dream was to get into investment banking in the US,” she told Quartz last year, but had to sit at home for years despite her qualifications as no employer would sponsor her H-1B.

The impact on one’s psychological well-being could potentially lead to marital discord or even child abuse. ”We’ve seen terrible cases of domestic violence. In one instance, the frustration was taken out on the family where the mother attacked her own children,” said Chothani of LawQuest.

Looming fears

Meghna Demani remembers, when H-4 visa holders began getting back to work in 2015, how these women were transformed. A former model and business school graduate who went on to make a documentary about her life on the H-4, Damani saw women around her “going from fearful and anxious housewives to confident and happy working women contributing to the future of their families” upon receiving their EADs, she told Quartz.

Luckily for Damani, she became a citizen this year, but the uncertainty around work permits is wreaking havoc in the lives of hundreds of spouses who are in a limbo. And the fear isn’t just that more people won’t get EADs. Those who already have it and have begun working or setting up their own businesses worry they will slip back again.

“The lack of consideration for immigrant families with this kind of back and forth on visa rules not only shows the lack of humanism in the current administration but also a lack of long-range common sense thinking,” Damani said. “As a country of immigrants that is in need of highly skilled workers (who naturally have spouses and children), this kind of wishy-washiness on visa rules is going to discourage great talent from wanting to enter the country.”

The strings are tightening not just for the dependents, but even the H-1B workers. Data from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) shows that the high-skilled visa programme is getting harder to crack. One in four applications between January and August were sent back via “requests for further evidence,” the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall). Fewer than one in five were sent back last year. And president Trump has made no bones about how he wants to change the H-1B system with his “Buy American, Hire American” executive order in April 2017.

“More and more families are fed up and happier not coming or staying in the US,” Damani added, “…the price they have to pay is too high.”