Once again, fears are rife about the US locking spouses of H-1B workers back in their golden cages.
In a Sept. 21 court filing, the US department of homeland security (DHS) said that a rule to undo the Obama-era H-4 employment authorisation document (EAD) provision is undergoing review and will be submitted to the White House office of management and budget. This means the fate of H-4 visa-holders could be sealed within the next three months.
This has led to fears resurfacing among Indians in the US. Over half-a-dozen lawyers, activists, and H-4 visa-holders that Quartz spoke to expect the immigrant-friendly regulation to be overturned.
Meanwhile, green card applicants are in for a rude shock of their own.
Foreign immigrants who have availed of or may avail of government benefits such as food and cash assistance may find their green cards applications denied. Applicants “must establish that they are not likely at any time to become a public charge” unless determined by Congress, the DHS said.
Fearing the worst
The clampdown on H-4 workers “comes as no surprise,” said Hassan Ahmad, a North Virginia-based immigration lawyer who serves on the boards of various state and local agencies and nonprofits advising on immigration policy. The stern stance is in line with increasing H-1B requests for evidence, lengthier processing timelines, and targeted employer site visits, among other things.
Since assuming power in early 2017, the Donald Trump administration has dangled a sword over the regulation that allows some H-4 visa holders—specifically the spouses of H-1B visa-holders awaiting green card approval–to seek EAD and get a job.
Uncertainties have mounted as the decision-making timeline was pushed forward from February to June. In April, Lee Francis Cissna, director of the US citizenship and immigration services, reiterated that the government was reworking the rule. But the administration maintained a stoic silence even in June.
If it indeed does away with the rule before the year-end, Indian women will be the worst hit. Of the over 100,000 H4 visas issued in total, most have gone to Indians and nine in 10 to women. The immigrant group also sees some of the longest wait-times for green cards, stretching anywhere from 12 to a bizarre 150 years.
“For an H-4 spouse looking at a 10-year wait to get a green card, that is an incredibly long time to be forced to sit out of the job market,” said Sam Adair, an immigration lawyer at Graham Adair. Worsening matters, the US laws not only keep H-4 holders from entering the country’s workforce but also from working remotely for non-US firms.
The period in limbo would send women hurtling back to “the darkest years of their lives,” according to Meghna Damani, who left her advertising job in Mumbai to marry and move to the US on a H-4 and made a movie about the plight of women like her. With the 2015 rule, “they have battled daily frustration, depression, guilt, and shame to finally find freedom, hope, and the ability to dream and live a life of dignity again.” Taking away their right to work now will shatter their dreams all over again.
Besides the psychological turmoil and family discord, the financial burden would grow immensely, too. “Based on the feedback I got…both before and after the issuance of the EAD rule in 2015, this could severely affect the H-1B families who often were awaiting the second income to see if it was financially feasible to remain in the US,” said Leon Rodriguez of Seyfarth Shaw, who was the director of the USCIS between 2014 and 2017.
A slew of immigrant couples will be unable to afford a house, especially in neighbourhoods with good educational facilities for their children, or pay off mortgages without a double income.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘why should they have a second car?’ But people must understand that the lifestyle in the US is very different. Even to go to the market, the wife is dependent on the husband,” said Divya Ravindranath, a former PhD candidate at Washington University who researched the implications of visa regulations and labour-market restrictions on Indian immigrant women in the US.
The ripple effect of this reaches back home, too. “A couple makes remittances to a man’s family but because women don’t earn a living, they feel ashamed to ask their husbands money to send back home,” Ravindranath said.
In many instances, women would rather leave than stay with their wings clipped. And that’s bad news for America.
Your loss, America
This hardline approach neglects the contributions of immigrant workers to the US economy. “That corporations can’t find people to fill jobs, or that many H-4 EAD holders start their own businesses that hire US workers, seems to be ignored,” said Ahmad.
In fact, letters from Business Roundtable (on behalf of CEOs of Apple, ADP, American Airlines, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola, among others) and the Internet Association from August argue that taking H-4 EAD beneficiaries out of the workforce would cause high-skilled talent to take their skills abroad.
Already, the US benefits from many immigrant startup founders and immigrant investors. H-1B workers plug a skills gap. H-4 talent, too, can contribute to this growing productive pool significantly. After all, nearly 60% of those living in America as dependents of their spouses have professional or graduate degrees of their own; 49% have an individual income upwards of $75,000, a survey of over 2,400 people by advocacy group Save H4 EAD revealed.
Some H-4 workers have already made their mark in the West. For instance, Sudarshana Sengupta, a biomedical researcher for the last 13 years in the US, has been associated with research at Harvard and the University of Chicago and has launched a startup aimed at developing cancer immunotherapy strategies.
“Several American companies are global in their reach, and depend upon the stability and opportunity afforded to their workforce in the US,” said Suman Raghunathan, executive director at non-profit South Asian Americans Leading Together. “Cutting off the ability of H1-B workers and their spouses with H-4 visa status to fully contribute to the US economy and for their own future stability makes little sense and will only serve to stunt overall American productivity, industry stability, and innovation.”
If the US isn’t welcoming, women and their husbands will pack their bags and bid America farewell for bluer skies in Canada or Australia, where there are fewer work restrictions for spouses, Damani warned. “America’s loss will be the gain for other countries,” she said.