The dark side of H-1B visas

Living in fear.
Living in fear.
Image: Twitter/Green Card Backlog Coalition
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In 2013, Kadambari Nathu and her husband bought a two-bedroom home in Seattle, where they planned to settle down for good. Her husband was a software engineer on an H-1B visa and she was a mental health practitioner on a dependent visa.

That year, they applied for their green cards.

But immigration restrictions and a years-long wait have plunged their future in the US into an abyss of uncertainty. Last year, they sold their property and are now living in a rented apartment.

“When we realized how precarious our life in the US was, I didn’t want to deal with a distress sale if we had to rush back to India due to visa rejection,” Nathu says.

The couple’s uncertain position stems from a US immigration policy that wants to cash in on the economic benefits of highly skilled Indian workers—without paying the political price of letting them stay long-term.

Like the Nathus, hundreds of thousands of H-1B workers from India are stuck in a decades-long green card queue. An estimated 200,000 will likely die of old age before they reach the front of the line. The backlog is the result of a mismatch between the annual number of H-1Bs, which are issued irrespective of nationality via a lottery, and green cards, which are capped by country. For years, Indians have scored nearly three-quarters of H-1Bs, while no more than 7% of employment-based green cards issued each year can go to any one nation. 

Lawmakers have let the green card crunch fester for years to avoid getting into gnarly immigration discussions, and the problem has only gotten worse in the Trump era, with the president taking numerous swipes at the program over his first term. Meanwhile, it’s the workers who shoulder the costs by living in limbo while they await a decision.

If nothing is done, the current 195-year timeline for Indian green card hopefuls could stretch to a crazy 450 years within a decade. Meanwhile, the Nathus keep a backpack with their immigration documents handy in case they have to leave suddenly.

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Tethered to the H-1B

H-1B holders are eligible to apply for a green card after six years of working in the US, and employers have been sponsoring them speedily, too.

But until they get their green cards, applicants are in danger of being kicked out of the country if the government suddenly changes its policies. And while they wait, they are at the mercy of employers who sponsor them. Workers can renew their visa indefinitely while in the green card queue, but during that time, they can only work at companies approved to employ H‑1B holders. They can’t be unemployed or start their own businesses. If they lose their job, they lose their status and position in the green card line.

In the best-case scenario, being tethered to an employer stunts professional progress. In the worst, it can lead to exploitation. In one case, a California firm paid its H-1B hires much lower wages than it promised; other companies imposed excruciatingly long hours in unfavorable conditions.

It can also make it more likely that some Indian workers have to put up with hostile work environments created by other Indian immigrants. In a recent lawsuit involving US multinational Cisco, lower-caste Indian professionals accused their upper-caste colleagues of discrimination. In the aftermath, more than 250 Dalits from companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Netflix, have reportedly come forward to level similar allegations.

“We are dependent on our employers for our entire existence and our families’ future in this country, so the victims are afraid to speak up,” 37-year-old Chicago resident Shreya Joshi told Quartz.

But leaving is not easy. For several professionals, especially in fields of advanced research and technology, the US often offers far superior opportunities to earn and advance than in their home countries. And after spending a significant time in the country, uprooting their families is a tall ask. Most people would rather stay put, despite the long wait fraught with uncertainty.

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H-1B families in jeopardy

The delays don’t affect H-1B workers alone, but also their families. Rajshekhar Rao worries that his India-born daughter, who moved to the US with her mother when she was six months old, will have to self-deport to India if he doesn’t get a green card by the time she turns 21. That’s still 11 years away, but he’s already waited for eight.

“If I was born in any other country, by now I would have been a citizen,” the 40-year-old Colorado resident said.

More than two‐​thirds of the minor children of employment-based green card applicants from India—almost 90,000 of them—could age out before their parents receive a green card, tearing families apart.

For the children of H-1B holders, the long waits also mean paying international student fees when they attend college, and applying for their own work visa if they want to work.

Suresh Ramanathan, 41, doesn’t have to worry about those problems. His children, who are enrolled in elementary school, were born in the US. Still, he lives in fear of being separated from them if he or his wife, a nurse treating Covid-19 patients, lose status.

“My life always revolves around keeping my visas from going astray, presenting my immigration documents to everyone and everywhere all the time just to get simple things done for myself and family,” the Atlanta resident told Quartz. He has been in the US for 15 years, 10 of them waiting for a green card.

Spouses of H-1B holders pay an even higher professional price. Women like Ramanathan’s wife and Nathu couldn’t even get a job until 2015, when the Obama administration allowed certain H-4 visa-holders—spouses of H-1B workers waiting for green cards—to get work authorization. Nine in 10 H-4 workers are highly-paid Indian women with college degrees whose career plans are held up by not having permanent residence. Nathu believes switching from the H-1B dependent visa to a green card would give her the freedom to set up her own clinic where, in addition to treating patients, she could develop training programs, teach, and do research—none of which she can do right now.

Instead, Trump has made countless threats to strike down the rule allowing her to work at all.

Despite all the sacrifices, lives can be turned upside down in an instant, especially in the unfortunate event of the primary applicant’s death, which can often deprive dependents of the right to remain in the US. Last year, the death of a North Carolina-based developer made waves in the H-1B community, after it was reported that his pregnant wife would be left out of status and forced to move back to India.

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Time for green card reform

Some in Congress are trying to tackle the growing backlog, yet senators aren’t able to agree on how to fix the problem.

One bill that would remove country caps on green cards has long been waiting in the wings. The Fairness for High‐​Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, introduced by Democratic representative Zoe Lofren from California, aims to phase out the 7% country cap over a four-year period. The bill passed in the House of Representatives in July 2019, but despite bipartisan support, it has repeatedly failed to pass in the Senate. Most recently, it was blocked in August by Republican senator Rick Scott of Florida, who said it would disadvantage native and Latin American workers.

“Employment-based green card reform is a controversial area,” Sanwar Ali, founder of UK-based immigration consulting firm, wrote. “If you remove the per-country cap on employment-based immigrant visas without increasing the overall number of green cards, then Indian and Chinese nationals will benefit at the expense of other nationals.”

Over time, there has been chatter in Congress about another solution, increasing the total number of green cards. Business leaders like Apple CEO Tim Cook have voiced support. But the needle has not moved on that proposal either.

While politicians drag their feet, the Indian community is ratcheting up pressure. H-1B holders have started their own advocacy group, the Green Card Backlog Coalition, to lobby for the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. They argue that if country of birth is not a consideration when doling out H-1Bs, it shouldn’t be one when allocating green cards either.

With election season in full force, Indian Americans are also flexing their political muscle. They are the second largest immigrant group in the US after Mexicans. Many of the 2.7 million Indians reside in swing states. Among the wealthiest and most educated of US immigrants, they have contributed millions of dollars to presidential campaigns this year, including $3.3 million at a single recent event for Democrat Joe Biden.

While Indian-Americans have so far voted Democrat, some could see Trump as an attractive option given his bonhomie with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who is popular among the community, and Biden’s critical stance on India’s crackdown in Kashmir. But Biden could gain an edge over Trump with immigration policy.

In contrast to Trump’s aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric, Biden has promised to do away with the country caps, and has said he believes foreign graduates of US doctoral programs should get green cards. The president alone doesn’t have the power to make these sweeping changes—Congress has the final say—but some worry Biden won’t actually lobby for the cause if he takes office.

“I see it as an election stunt. Where were all these folks in the past 20 years? This is not a problem that just came in the last four years,” said Rao, the Colorado engineer. “Now it is all lip service.”

All names in the story have been changed to protect identities.