Proposed changes to the H-1B visa program could put many women back into a ‘golden cage’

The World
Woman sitting at table holding certificate, smiling

The first thing Neha Mahajan did when she received her authorization to work in the United States was apply for a social security number. Then, she opened up her own bank account.

“I will no longer be my husband’s wife, only,” she declared to PRI’s The World in an interview at the time. Her voice was clear and crisp, groomed from years of working as a broadcast journalist in her native New Delhi.

It was 2015, just after the Obama administration had issued an executive order that granted people like herself, spouses of skilled workers who were on the path to permanent residency, the right to work. That change was a victory for Mahajan. As she tells it, when she first arrived in the US in 2008 at age 25, she began to see the most productive years of her life rot before her eyes. Unlike the spouses of other professional employment visa holders, adults on the H-4 visa — the name for the dependent visa attached to the H-1B visa — were barred from employment themselves. Ninety percent of them are women. Often just as skilled, experienced and ambitious as their husbands, they were rendered utterly dependent on them for everything. They were invisible in the eyes of the US government, even though they paid taxes.

That’s why President Barack Obama’s order was so important to Mahajan. Her dreams of growing as a journalist in a new country were shattered when she realized the restrictions of her visa, so she advocated for reform. But a recent announcement from the Department of Homeland Security indicates her ability to work is in jeopardy: “DHS is proposing to remove from its regulations certain H-4 spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants as a class of aliens eligible for employment authorization.”

In short, they plan to stop giving the spouses of H-1B visa holders permission to work in the US.

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According to analysts, the proposal will go through scrutiny, likely in February 2018 after it’s listed in the Federal Register, the government’s official journal of agency rules, proposed rules and public notices. But they say it is only a matter of time until Mahajan, and thousands of people like her, can no longer legally work in the US.

“I think it definitely will happen,” says Sarah Pierce, an expert on employment-based immigration at the Migration Policy Institute.

The changes to the H-4 visa are part of of Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order and are fallout from a longstanding lawsuit against the Obama directive. Save Jobs USA, an organization of former Southern California Edison IT workers who claim they lost their jobs to H-1B workers, sued DHS in April 2015, for granting the work permits — just before Obama’s order went into effect. While a US district court dismissed the lawsuit in September 2016, Save Jobs USA appealed that ruling.

Since Trump took office, both DHS and Save Jobs USA have filed motions in the case. DHS asked the court to pause the case while it implements removing H-4 work authorization. The court has yet to make a decision on the most recent motions, filed in December 2017.

What does all of this amount to for those who hold H-4 visas? After years of advocacy and rebuilding their confidence from joining the workforce, women like Mahajan fear returning to what they call the “golden cage” or the “depression visa.”

Rueful laughs spliced with sighs tumble out whenever Mahajan talks about how she once idealized the “American dream.” Now, after a decade in the US, she says she feels more like an “American in waiting.” Her announcer-ready voice remains articulate, but shakes when she talks about her feelings.

“Anxiety is what it is,” she says. “I’m always anxious. … I think it’s only increased over these years because I do not see any end in sight to our situation.”

Also: Immigration limbo is a ‘tug of emotions.’ It’s also a mental health issue.

The US allows for 85,000 H-1B visas to be issued every year. About 70 percent of H-1B visa holders have Indian passports; by extension, most H-4 spouses hail from India as well. Without work authorization, the only other way a spouse on an H-4 visa would be able to work is if she were able to become a legal permanent resident, a green card holder. But the US has quotas for the number of green cards it grants to immigrants from each country every year. Because India delivers the most skilled workers to the US, India’s green card waiting line is severely backlogged.

It’s a complicated and time-sensitive process. To be eligible for an employment-based green card, an H-1B holder needs an employer to sponsor them and there needs to be a visa available. The H-1B visa typically lasts up to three years with one three-year renewal, so employers have to file their petition before the immigrant’s visa expires. While a green card is pending, though, H-1B holders can continue to renew their visas until their application is processed.

In January 2018, the US State Department reported that they are still processing green card applications from Indians who filed their forms in 2006 and 2008. The US issues about one million green cards per year, limiting the number of family- and employment-based green cards from each country to 7 percent of the amount issued, regardless of each country’s population. Advocates with Skilled Immigrants in America, an organization made up of mostly Indian workers and their families, calculate that applicants from India, if nothing changes, could have to wait upwards of 70 years to adjust their status from an H-1B to a green card because as many as 95,000 applicants are being added to the queue each year. The process of getting a so-called “visa number,” a spot in the yearly supply, becomes nearly impossible.

“For adjustment of status, you need to have a visa number available. But the visa number is not available because of these discriminatory country caps,” says Karthik, a member of Skilled Immigrants in America who is based in California. He asked to only use his first name because he fears his advocacy might hurt his green card process.

The issues these green card applicants face trickle down to their family members.

Also: The children of H-1B visa holders are growing up — and still waiting for green cards

Divya Ravindranath is a PhD candidate at Washington University in St. Louis who conducted in-depth, qualitative interviews with 32 Indian women with H-4 visas for a small study. Despite wanting to work — all the women Ravindranath spoke with expressed an explicit desire to do so — they ended up reliving stereotypes of women in India, where a variety of factors continue to make it difficult for women to join the workforce. These H-4 spouses might have challenged those barriers in India, but it is impossible for them to do so in the US.

H-4 visa holders from other countries, meanwhile, have different experiences than those from India because of the green card wait times associated with their country. An organizer for the South Bay H-4 visa holders support group, based in Silicon Valley, for example, told me the group is not very active these days because most everyone has transitioned to a green card or benefitted from the Obama administration’s work permit change. Some of those who transitioned to green cards came from Europe; others who were able to work without waiting for green cards were from India.

“I think there is a culture of silence around the world where we talk about labor force participation being an economic principle without thinking about what are the larger structures that push women out of the labor force. We almost make it sound like women are not in the labor force and that’s the problem,” Ravindranath says. “But what is causing that problem, right?”

When Mahajan first realized she couldn’t work under her visa, she volunteered to keep her skills fresh and boost her resume. But at home, she joined private social media groups about H-4 visas and poured out her agony. Her husband empathized, but his H-1B visa is also uncertain. In October 2017, DHS announced it would increase scrutiny of H-1B renewal applications (PDF). On Dec. 30, the McClatchy news organization reported that officials in DHS are considering removing renewal options for H-1B holders awaiting green cards.

In the meantime, Mahajan struggles to move forward. Her family eventually saved up enough so that she could pursue a certificate in public relations. She saw other friends on the H-4 pursue master’s or associate’s degrees — the H-4 visa doesn’t stop you from studying — but it didn’t make sense for her single-earning family with a small child, she says.

“What is the whole point of studying if you cannot work? How much can you continue to study?”

Woman stands in crowd behind sign that reads “29th India Day Parade”
Neha Mahajan first arrived in the US in 2008 at age 25, and attended her first India Day Parade in New York City. She had experience in broadcast journalism, but as the spouse of an H-1B visa-holder, she was not authorized to work.Courtesy of Neha Mahajan

Hear why Neha Mahajan decided to volunteer to keep up her skills, though she could not work when she first came to the US.

In 2011, Mahajan met another H-4 visa holder, Meghna Damani, at a film festival in New Jersey where she was volunteering. Damani had made a film about her experience on the H-4 and was mobilizing spouses for immigration reform. Forget Facebook — the in-person experience of sharing stories with Damani and watching her film created a more real sense of community for Mahajan. “I had that sense of satisfaction so as to say that I am not alone,” Mahajan says. “There are so many women like me.”

Save Jobs USA argues that spouses of H-1B visa holders — like Mahajan — are being given the opportunity to take jobs that should prioritize hiring US workers. Their lawsuit, they say, is about limiting the amount of power the president has to issue such an order.

“The problem is that if a president has that much power, the president has the power to wipe out every protection for the American worker,” says John Miano, a labor attorney who represents Save Jobs USA.

It’s hard to argue that H-4 workers are impacting the availability of jobs in practice, though, because so little is known about them. “We have lots of data on H-1B workers,” says Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute. “We don’t have any information on their spouses.”

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Rashi Bhatnagar runs the popular Facebook discussion group “H-4 visa, a curse.” She says that many women simply can’t get employment authorization documents, or EADs: “The EAD is dependent on the husband. I know so many women who are qualified for an EAD but their husbands have not filed for an EAD.”

The government has approved over 104,000 H-4 employment authorizations since 2015 (PDF). They initially estimated that more than 179,000 people would be eligible immediately, and about 55,000 more people each year would become eligible. But the government does not track information on the total number of H-4 visa holders who are actually working, according to a US Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson. So it’s difficult to tell what kind of a dent H-4 visa holders are making in the job market.

What’s left is anecdotal.

Miano, the labor attorney representing Save Jobs USA, says regardless of the numbers, American workers have experienced losing jobs to H-1B visa holders and they don’t want to see the same thing happen with H-4 visa holders.

But Mahajan says many H-4 visa holders who do get work authorization don’t actually work.

“Many of them have just taken the EAD for the heck of it, because it gives them the liberty to get a social security number and to open a bank account in their own names,” she says. “They’re not even working.”

After getting her employment authorization in August 2015, it took Mahajan more than eight months to land a job that used her skills, though not in broadcast journalism.

Some employers dismissed her volunteer work as not equivalent to work experience, she says. Others, upon discovering her visa status over the course of interviews, politely declined. She eventually landed a job as an account manager for an IT firm, Global Data Management, Inc., where she worked for about a year and nine months. She was honored for high achievement within the company.

Still, when the news of the Trump administration’s intentions for H-4 work permits first started circulating in November 2017, her employer gave her notice and asked her to resign by the end of the year. They cited budget cuts. When DHS formally announced their plan to stop offering H-4 work permits a month later, the request was expedited.

“They asked me to just leave. ‘There’s an immediate budget cut. We can’t keep you any longer,’” she recalls her boss telling her. Mahajan resigned that very day. “I thought this was an attack on my self-respect,” she says.

Global Data Management, Inc., did not return repeated calls requesting comment about Mahajan’s departure and how proposed changes to visas will affect them. Mahajan says she worries she will have a hard time finding another job after speaking out. She thinks, given the timing, what happened at the company was related to Trump’s policies.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I see a link there,” Mahajan says.

Although DHS has announced plans to reverse the rule that allows her to work, Mahajan hasn’t completely given up hope for a new job. But the process, considering the circumstances, is excruciating.

“At least a couple of places, I’ve been told that — on the phone, not in person — that, ‘You know you’re on H-4 EAD and you know what the noise is all about. So we’re really sorry. We really like your skills, but we can’t hire you.’”

“And I am again at a juncture where I don’t know what life’s going to unfold.”

More: How H-1B work visas transformed tech and education in the US and India

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