Times are tough for immigrant spouses these days.
The Trump administration’s hostility toward what he infamously calls “chain migration” has left immigrants, and particularly women immigrants, in the lurch. Married immigrants seeking green cards are now often targeted for deportation—and while immigrant spouses holding H-4 visas may have no immediate fear of deportation, they are at risk of having to return to a pre-Obama era of not being able to work in this country.
I understand their predicament. In the early 90’s, I was living in my native India, had earned the U.S. equivalent of a CPA and was working in the Ernst and Young Mumbai office. I had become manager of Corporate Advisory Services at just 25 and was working on cross-border mergers and acquisitions, business valuations and due diligence projects with clients like Coke, Enron, Pennzoil and many other international companies. I was on partner track and absolutely loved my exciting career and independent lifestyle.
Then, when I was 27, I was introduced to a guy who lived in New Orleans.
He had earned his Ph.D. and was teaching financial accounting at Tulane University. After a four-month long distance relationship, we decided to get married. He came to India, we met for the first time and soon after we tied the knot. He was on an H1-B visa, an employer-sponsored work visa; that meant my best and quickest option to get to the U.S. and be with him would be to accompany him on an H4. In other words, my best option was to become, in the eyes of the government, a dependent spouse.
It was a tough decision to quit my job and forsake my financial independence. Two weeks after arriving in the U.S., I was overwhelmed with loneliness. I wanted to be a productive citizen, but I had no idea where to start. When we relocated to Dallas, Texas, the next year, I decided to enroll at the University of Texas to get my MBA in hopes that having a U.S.-based education would help me find a job—and an employer willing to sponsor my work visa. Being on an H4 visa meant I could not even take on a paying campus job; fortunately, a faculty member helped me secure a volunteer position with a start-up incubator that eventually offered to sponsor my own H1-B visa, and after a few months, it was approved and my life was reset in this country.
This is not a typical story for H4 visa holders—many women instead struggle for years to find their way in this country. Some give up their careers and goals. Some find themselves dependent on violent partners.
But one part of my story is more commonplace. The book Visa Wives: Emigration Experiences of Indian Women in the US documents issues faced by new H4 arrivals and aims to find out what happens in the world of women who fly on dependent visas. Like me, many of these dependent spouses come to the U.S. with incredible skills and work experience from their home country; like mine were, their options are limited when they arrive. But there is one option for visa wives who find themselves barred from meaningful employment: H4 visa holders can volunteer with any organization doing any range of tasks—and for H4 visa holders, that remains one of the only pathways to potential employment.
In 2015, The Obama administration began authorizing temporary work permits—known as Employment Authorization Documents (EADs)—for spouses of H-1B visa holders who were in the pipeline to get a green card. Approximately 104,750 H4 visa holders now have an EAD, according to latest figures from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This might sound like a large number, but in the 10-year period from 2007 to 2017, a total of 2,237,478 H1-B petitions had been approved for Indians; the gap between approved H1-B petitions and extensions minus the total number of H4 EADs totals up to an entire generation of H4 visa holders who have potentially been left behind—and now, left in limbo.
Save Jobs USA, an organization of IT workers who claim they lost their jobs to H-1B workers, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security on April 23, 2015, just before the Obama rule was about to go live. The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal district court in September 2016, but the Save Jobs USA plaintiffs have filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeal for the D.C. Circuit. The essence of their claim is that the new rule has no protections for U.S. workers, and that the Department of Homeland Security did not have the authority to grant EADs to H-4 visa holders. Homeland Security had planned to issue a proposal in February that once again barred spouses of HB-1 visa holders from seeking employment. The rollout of that curb on H4 EADs is now scheduled for June 2018.
It would behoove the Department of Homeland Security and the current administration to consider how to take advantage of the incredible human assets women on H4 visas bring to the table—along with their burning desire to get engaged, get productive and become active tax-paying citizens. It would similarly behoove corporate America to adjust their perspectives on immigrant workers of all stripes and situations—and begin seeing their skills as assets, not risks.
It’s time for us to figure out how to make room for these women at the table—and give them a chance at the independence and opportunity our nation prides itself on.