The dispirited lives of spouses on the H-4 visa have been widely reported in recent times. The findings have highlighted the problems these H-4 visa holders have endured after moving to the United States: professional setbacks due to the loss of their careers back home; loss of their mobility and identity; and, above all, total economic and social dependence on their spouses. These issues are not new, but during a global pandemic, they are proving to be devastating.
H-4 is a dependent visa, issued to spouses and children who accompany an H-1B visa holder admitted to this country. The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa provided by an employer for high-skilled foreign workers. The employer would offer them a job and then file a petition with the U.S. immigration departments, which if approved, guarantees a work permit for employment in this country. Since the 1990s, the technology boom in the U.S. has attracted a large number of high-skilled technology workers and families from India, significantly more than any other country.
Until 2015, spouses on the H-4 visa — majority of them women — were not allowed to work due to the misguided logic that their partners on H-1B were making a good income and are assumed to be part of the model minority myth. This argument is also innately biased, reminiscent of centuries-old prejudice that women don’t need to work and that they belong at home. These highly-educated, professional women find it very frustrating to stay at home and to be treated as dependents.
In May 2015, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) extended employment authorization documents (EAD) to a certain section of H-4 dependents whose spouses are in an advanced stage of their green card application (specifically, those who have been given the I-140, one of the many complicated documents under the U.S. visa regulations). This was critical in giving H-4 visa holders the chance to finally work in the United States and to secure jobs that they were highly qualified for.
However, the current pandemic has created havoc among H-4 EAD visa holders, making the visa renewal extremely time-consuming and leading to loss of their jobs. On March 11, 2019 the USCIS introduced a new rule for H-4 visa applicants: they need to go through a special identification program, known as biometrics, at the time of the visa renewal. Thus, a simple visa renewal process that used to take two to three weeks now lasts several months. USCIS has outsourced the biometrics job to private contracting companies, known as application support centers (ASCs), who collect fingerprints and photographs on behalf of USCIS. During the coronavirus outbreak, these centers closed down in March of 2020. As a result, many are left without jobs. H-4 visa holders with EAD are not even eligible for unemployment benefits, because they are deemed “non immigrants.” So on top of job losses, they are dealing with financial and health crises and the uncertainty of their family’s future.
I am part of nine WhatsApp groups — with at least 250 members each — that discuss the problems these visa holders are facing due to delays in processing their visa applications. Based on the information I have gathered during my research, the respondents report that despite their vital contributions to various sectors of the economy, including coronavirus-related research, their companies treat them as expendables and are ready to replace them if they cannot renew their visa documents.
Visa Non-renewals and Job Loss
Medha Gupta (the first name of all the respondents have been changed at their request), a recipient of the Hero award from her company, is afraid of losing her job because of the delay in biometrics. She came to the U.S. from Mumbai, India, and has lived in North Carolina for nine years as an H-4 dependent spouse. She received her EAD nearly five years ago, right after the Obama administration approved it in 2015. Now, she is a software analyst at a large, well-known healthcare firm and is currently an integral member of the company’s coronavirus project. Medha applied for her H-4 visa renewal and her EAD renewal in March this year. Her receipt date was March 22, but she has not even received her biometric appointment yet.
Because of the coronavirus, all the offices were closed since March, and it’s been almost a month since the USCIS offices opened. Medha said that she called them three times already, and every time she got a different response. “The first time when I called, they said ‘offices were opened last week, so you will receive it soon.’ The second time I called them, they said ‘offices are open and soon you will get your biometric appointment.’ Last week I called them, they said ‘in 10 to 15 days you will receive your biometric appointments.’”
Medha’s H-4 visa is expiring in the first week of January, but she needs to get it renewed before December to keep her job. Right now, she does not believe this will happen, because the delay in the process is so long, and she is not close to finishing it.
“Once I get my biometric done, I have to get my H-4, and then after H-4 will go for renewal, EAD will be processed,” she said. “So it will take time based on the H-4 approval. There is a 90% chance that I’ll lose my job in December.”
Even with all her achievements at work, Medha is certain that “as soon as my manager will get to know I have a problem with my visa, they will have my replacement. I will be losing my job.” At her company, she is a critical resource, and she has in-depth knowledge about their coronavirus project. She helped her firm make huge profits, and she helped people across the nation by working on a home-based testing kit. Apparently, this is inconsequential in the eyes of the law.
“I don’t feel valued. We are not getting anything back from this country,” Medha said.
After living here for nearly a decade and raising her daughter here, Medha must now prepare herself and her family to go back to India if things don’t work out. Right now, her future is incredibly uncertain.
Mandal Verma is another H-4 visa holder who has been affected by the pandemic and the biometrics requirement. He has not been able to get his biometrics done, and thus, his EAD was not renewed. Now he is without a job, simply because of factors outside his control. He said that, although “I have two job offers in my hand, I cannot join them.” He is afraid that “the people who are waiting for their biometrics get pushed back and back and back. There is no first in, first out anymore.”
Mandal has a master’s in plastics engineering, has worked for more than 15 years in mega-corporations, like PricewaterhouseCoopers and a Robotics company, and owns a patent. Despite all of these qualifications, he is still jobless because of the biometrics delay. He finds the situation ironic.
“Unless you have an H-4 EAD card, which is like the driver’s license, in your hand, your employer will not authorize you to work,” Mandal said.
Sarvari Jampanam moved from Hyderabad to the United States on an H-4 visa in 2012. In India, she left behind a prestigious job as a stock exchange adviser for Factset, an American financial analysis company. With her expertise and experience, she hoped that it would not be difficult for her to get a job and acquire an H-1B visa here in the U.S. In 2013, she got a job, but when her company applied for her H-1B visa, she found that because of the excessive demand, there was a lottery system in place. For three years, her company sponsored her H-1B visa, but she was not picked in the lottery. Thus, in 2015, she switched to an H-4 visa and applied for EAD so that she could work here in the U.S. without any restrictions.
Sarvari’s H-4 expired on June 11, 2020. She applied for visa renewal on March 18, and her receipt date from USCIS was March 26. That was when the pandemic started, and all the ASC offices were closed. She called the USCIS office to expedite her case, making a plea that “I was under financial strain. I had to pay my home loan, and [I] have no medical insurance. But they just denied it.” Without the H-4 visa renewal, her job ended on June 11. Her manager has been very understanding, and under special circumstances, her company has put her under administrative leave without any pay till the 11th of September. She is not very hopeful that she will get her biometric before the end of the extended leave.
“Since February, 2020, people who applied for visa renewal are still waiting,” Sarvari said. “I have a kid who has medical conditions. The insurance is so expensive that I can’t afford it.”
She is also aware that “it’s hard to get another job. You are in this pandemic situation, with the layoffs going on and all the people who are on furloughs and the retail industry totally down. I am just losing my job because of the visa.”
Long Wait Times and Still No Result
The whole pandemic has been very stressful for Sarvari. Without a definite date for her H-4 renewal, the uncertainty of her situation is very painful. “Everyday is a wait game. Just keep waiting and waiting and waiting. And every day I check my UPS, and try to see if I have my biometrics appointment,” she said. Her vulnerability right now is reminiscent of how she felt when she came to this country in 2012 and was not allowed to work while on H-4. The economic dependency was the most debilitating part for her. “When you’re an independent woman before marriage and then you come here, even for small things, you get dependent on someone,” Sarvari said.
Some applicants for the H-4 visa renewal have been waitlisted since November or December of 2019. Many were able to complete their biometric by February of 2020, but still haven’t received their H-4 or EAD due to circumstances outside their control.
Ananya Hariharan applied for her visa renewal last November, nearly 10 months ago. After still not receiving a decision, she feels helpless and has no choice but to accept that she may never get one.
“I lost hope of getting it by next month. For sure, I won’t be getting it, because I have people around me waiting since February, March, April. And I am last in that order. So I’m not getting it,” she said.
Wrongful Action and Misinformation by USCIS
USCIS is reported to have made mistakes when stamping the biometrics, and as a result, this issue has also contributed to many H-4 visa holders losing their EADs and their jobs. Mandal confirmed that it is very common for errors like this to happen.
Sriman and his wife have worked in this country on H-4 EAD and H-1B visas, respectively. Sriman’s H-4 visa had been held up for four months, despite calling USCIS three times to expedite his request. When his EAD card finally came, it had the wrong date written on it — his EAD was set to be renewed 14 days after it expired, meaning that he did not have it for two weeks. Without an EAD, he wasn’t an illegal immigrant (because he still had his H-4 status), but this did mean that he was no longer eligible to work in the U.S. He had to leave his job for this reason.
There are many other instances of misinformation from the USCIS. For instance, on a WhatsApp group, Vimala shared that “when I called USCIS, they say fingerprints were received from ASC, but I never gave it in the U.S. other than port of entry last year, November. However the status of the case remains as ‘case received.’”
Strict Rules at USCIS Prevent Change
USCIS is very strict about getting the biometrics done only at the certified ASCs in the U.S. Their rigid laws make it difficult for H-4 visa holders to get renewals and to complete the process with no complications.
Ananya Hariharan is working for a software company in Phoenix. Her visa, along with her spouse’s H-1B visa, is valid till September. They applied for a visa extension at the end of May, and the receipt date was June 8th. All the ASCs were closed till July 20th. Although some of their friends’ appointments were scheduled in March, they have not been rescheduled yet. Ananya is concerned that her chances of visa renewal are very slim.
Ananya came to this country in 2011. For five years she was forced to be a housewife because of her ineligibility to work on the H-4 visa. In 2015, with the introduction of H-4 EAD, she could finally join the job market. Now with the non-renewals of H-4 EAD, the first thing she is dreading is job loss. The loss of her driver’s license will take away her mobility. Besides the financial hurdle, she will also lose the privilege of doing a master’s in computer science and being sponsored by her company.
Right now, she is being forced to go through the renewal process again, after her H-4 EAD permit was only valid for a year: “We spend almost 10 months for H-4 EAD renewal and then again we have to apply for renewal. So all the time is spent in applying and reapplying for visa renewal.”
USCIS will not use her recent biometrics to speed up the process for her. Ananya shares that, “I had done my biometrics in India in July, 2019 for my visa stamping. But that would not be accepted.” The H-4 visa renewal form states that biometrics have to be done at an ASC in this country.
Mandal deals with a similar trouble. He shares that, “I am a frequent traveler. I travel outside the U.S. five times in a year or three times in a year. So every time I go in and out, I have given my biometrics, my photo is taken at the port of entry. But that is not acceptable.” Given the current state of affairs, he is afraid that he will not be able to complete his visa process for several months.
USCIS is not willing to be flexible about the biometrics requirements, even during the pandemic when the renewal process has become too lengthy and severely affects the careers of these H-4 visa holders. Sarvari confirms that without the physical biometric ID card, she would not be allowed to work or go back to her office. “They can’t hire me on the approval or anything. They need the card for me to join back,” she said.
Sumana Leelaraman is from Chennai and has been in the United States since 2015. She lives in Chandelier, Arizona. Her H-4 EAD is expiring on September 21, 2020, so her company, Wells Fargo, asked her to get it renewed in order to not lose her job.
She applied for a visa renewal in June, along with her husband, to the California USCIS center, which is known for taking the longest time. Her husband works for the state of Arizona and waited until the first week of June to apply on a premium basis, as he was waiting for some important papers from his place of work. Because H-1B and H-4 visas are now processed in different tracks, not together for family members as earlier, the H-4 and H-4 EAD renewal faces a huge delay. Sumana’s husband’s H-1B renewal was approved by July 1 (they submitted it in June), but now hers is being pushed back. She has not received her biometrics appointment letter; only after she gets that will they process her H-4 and then EAD.
Sumana has not even received her biometrics appointment yet. Her family’s health insurance is her responsibility, as her husband is on a contract job. She needs her request for H-4 EAD renewal to be approved before September 21, or she will lose her job at Wells Fargo. USCIS won’t approve anything until she gets past the biometrics. She is certain that in September, she will lose her job, as well as her health insurance.
USCIS is still processing applications from August, 2019. Sumana’s chances are very slim. Also, many of her friends report that even if they get their H-4 EAD visa renewed, there is currently no issuance of EAD printed cards.
A lawsuit has been initiated by the H-4 members of activist groups, like “H4 and H1B Visa Holders” and “Skilled Immigrants in America,” in order to save their jobs. They have to pay fees of at least $3,000 to $4,000 each. If they have to fight individually, they will pay $25,000. It is an expensive affair, but it is one they are willing to take on to fight for their right to stay in the U.S.
The H-4 visa holders have come to this country legally, have earned their rights to work, and live with dignity and self respect as taxpayers. They have made significant contributions to creating wealth for this country. This is simply not the way to treat them or any other human being.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a post-doctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans. Anna Vazhaeparambil is a high school senior at the Harker School in San Jose, CA. She is interested in pursuing sociological research, connecting societal behaviors and patterns to everyday life. As editor-in-chief of her school’s journalism program, she is committed to sharing her work with others and telling stories to make change.