- Revoking biometrics requirements for visa renewal has not helped much as the processing of visas remains inordinately slow, leading to job loss and other negative consequences.
After Joe Biden took office, there were great expectations among the H1-B and H-4 visa holders that he would ensure a smoother H-4 EAD visa extension. One positive outcome was that on May 17, 2021, to expedite the H-4 visa renewal, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) revoked the biometrics requirement that the Donald Trump administration had introduced. On March 11, 2019, USCIS introduced biometrics, a particular identification program at the state-designated application support centers (ASC), to confirm the applicant’s identity and run required background and security checks. After the Coronavirus outbreak, these centers closed down in March of 2020. As a result, many H-4 visa holders lost their jobs because they could not renew their visas without biometric clearance.
While the new USCIS memo came as a great relief for foreign workers with temporary work visas — the H-4 visa holders, a majority of them women — continue to suffer. Their visa renewal has been taking more than a year on average. According to one Facebook group, about 100,000 don’t have jobs and face an uncertain future. David Bier, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, believes that the suspension of biometrics is still inadequate because of the increasing number of job losses of H-4 EAD visa holders, thanks to the long wait for a visa renewal at the USCIS. I talked with many H-4 EAD visa holders who have lost their faith in the USCIS policies and processing of visas, calling the system broken and dysfunctional.
H-4 is a dependent visa issued to spouses and children who accompany an H-1B visa holder admitted to this country. Since May 2015, H-4 employment authorization documents (EADs) allow certain H-4 spouses to work legally in the United States. These H-4 spouses are only eligible if their H-1B spouses go through the process of obtaining permanent residence. According to the Cato Institute out of 500,000 H-4 visa holders, only 90,000 have work authorization.
In 2020, Swagatika* Mandal, who came to Silicon Valley six years ago as a dependent, had to apply for her H-4 visa renewal, as her husband’s H1-B visa was expiring. His company got his visa renewed on a premium basis within two weeks; however, as an H-4 dependent, Mandal’s visa did not qualify for the premium renewal. Since last November, her application has been pending. In the meantime, she lost her job as a business analyst in a reputed bank in the Bay Area. Mandal is heartbroken. “I have lost my career,” she says.
In 2014, Kolkata-based Mandal, a successful professional, joined her husband as a dependent spouse in Silicon Valley. In India, she had the job of her dreams in a leading English daily. Even though she got married in 2008, she did not want to leave her job. But the family pressure to be with her husband was immense, and finally, she had to give up her career to be with her husband. In 2015, she got the H-4 EAD status but realized that her education and training in India were inadequate to find a job here. She spent thousands to earn several certifications and finally got a job in 2019. But then the long delay in her visa renewal in 2020 rendered her unemployed.
Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, both her parents in India fell ill. Her elderly father had to go through a bypass surgery and caught covid. With her H-4 visa, Mandal could not go to India as she knew that she would be stuck there. The H-4 visa holder must get the visa stamped at the American embassy outside the country to re-enter the USA. However, in India, the embassies have been closed due to covid.
Being the only child, she had to manage her parents’ medical care long-distance. Not a single bed was available in any hospital in Kolkata. She spent thousands of dollars, bought oxygen for her father in the black market, arranged all his medication, and hired a full-time nurse to provide complete medical care at home. Mandal says, “I arranged to send a concentrator from here at an exorbitant price.”
With the mounting medical expenses in India, Mandal desperately needed her job. Twice, she requested USCIS expedite her H-4 visa renewal — in March and again in May 2021. She provided proof about her parents’ failing health with all the medical bills. The USCIS rejection letter came soon. She wonders whether any USCIS official even bothered to look at her appeal letter.
Uncertainties and Chaos
On May 17, the suspension of biometrics went into effect and will apply through May 17, 2023. However, if the USCIS decides that an individual case still needs it, they will require it. The people who have applied before May will still go through the biometrics process.
In 2014, Monika* came to the United States on an H-4 spousal visa and got her work permit in 2017 when her spouse’s employer sponsored him for a green card. She has been waiting for the last nine months since she applied for her visa renewal in October 2020. On March 19, her H-4 EAD expired, and she lost her job with Stanford Health Care in the IT department.
Like many other H-4 EAD visa holders who have lost jobs while waiting for the visa renewal, the system frustrates her. She says that the USCIS provides no factual information. She says, “I do not know how much longer it will delay, so I’m not working right now.”
With an electronics engineering degree and a post-graduate diploma in business administration, Sandhya Rajamanikam was a well-established IT professional in India. She came to this country in 2014 as an H-4 dependent spouse and was not eligible to work till she got her H-4 EAD in 2019.
On May 8, 2020, she had to apply for her visa renewal along with her husband’s H1-B visa. Rajamanikam says that even though she finished her biometrics on Sept. 8, she didn’t receive her H-4 approval until after 373 days on the May 14, 2021. Still, her saga was not over. She continues to wait for her H-4 EAD renewal.
On the USCIS website, the processing time frame is a minimum of 7 months and a maximum of 14 months. Rajamanikam says that the minimum has never worked for anybody. It has always been beyond the maximum; “every time you think you are nearing the finish line, it is pushed further.”
For Rajamanikam, like thousands of others, “it is the saddest situation that we are in, and the frustration level gets you so depressed because the uncertainty is what kills us. I need a definite date. Being lost in this system, we don’t even know when we are even getting it,” she says.
“The irony is we are paying taxes like any law-abiding member of the society. It feels like living in a golden cage.”
Rajamanikam says, “by the time I became eligible to get a work permit in this country, my friends have become citizens in other countries like Australia and Canada.”
She continues: “My children came here when they were one year old. The United States is the only country they know and call it home. But now, when things are not looking good, we are forced to look in different ways.”
Why it Takes So Long
Rajamanikam says, “I met several legislators. They are sympathetic; they understand the loss and emphasize that our work boosts the U.S. economy, but the key factor is we are not their vote banks.”
USCIS is not answerable to Congress. They decide their terms. New Jersey-based Neha Mahajan, an H-4 EAD visa holder who is waiting for the renewal, says, “something that takes less than 12 minutes to process is taking them 13- 15 months.”
Bay area-based Sonal* joined her husband as an H-4 dependent in 2013 and got her H-4 EAD visa in 2015. Her husband’s visa expired in 2020, and his company got it renewed on a premium basis within two weeks. Without a premium process for her H-4, she says, “even after eight months, I still have not received my H-4 extension, I lost my job in November 2020, and I have been unemployed ever since.” Sonal worked as an inventory planner for GAP in the retail industry.
It has been 10 months now, and she is still waiting. She worries the most about the gap between jobs since it makes her look less competent as a candidate. “Everyone knows that it is no fault of ours still we have to face the consequences. I work in retail, and since the pandemic, they have not been hiring, so it will be challenging to find a job again.”
The extensive wait period is affecting many professionals providing vital services. Rajamanikam says, “How can you have a doctor who is on an H-4 EAD visa that tells their patient, ‘I cannot consult you next year or next month because I have to take a break, I don’t have my visa’?”
In September 2020, U.S. Congress passed the HR 8337 bill that added the Premium Processing option for H-4 and EAD categories. The president signed this bill into law on October 1st, 2020. Still, USCIS has not implemented it. They increased the proposed premium processing fee for H1-B to $2,500 but have not taken any action to expedite the H-4 and H-4 EAD renewal. Chavan says, “it does not seem like a priority for the current Biden administration.”
Atlanta-based Monalisa* also lost her job due to the long wait time. She applied in June 2020 as her visa was expiring on the 4th of June 2021. Her husband’s H1-B visa got approved in two months, but she is still waiting. June 4th was her last day at work. She says, “we know that lots of friends are losing their jobs. A close friend has been out of a job for the last eight months and another for 12 months.”
Monalisa did everything right — she applied the stipulated six months before the visa expiration. In the meantime, she and her family had a severe car accident with an 18-wheel truck. She has been going through therapy and acupuncture. Their medical bills are enormous. The case remains unsettled, and they are paying their medical bills on a payment plan. It is hard to manage a family of four with one salary, with two young kids, nine and five. “The loss of my job is the most stressful for my family and me.”
The long process of visa renewal incurs the loss of a job, driver’s license not to mention mental, emotional, and physical stress. “They have so much mental stress just being confined to home. They are facing big financial crunches and cannot even help their families back in India without a job,” says Bay area-based Netra Chavan, the founder of 135k members strong ‘H4 and H1B visa Holders’ Facebook Group since 2009. The group serves H-4 and H1-B visa holders connecting them as a community.
Monalisa made an emotional appeal to the USCIS through the local members of Congress. Georgia Rep. Lucia Kay McBath’s office asked USCIS three times to expedite Monalisa’s visa. The message from USCIS reads, “we are processing all the applications in the order we have received. At this time, we can not process it in an expedited way.”
Monalisa’s 5th grader son wrote handwritten letters to the president, vice president, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) head, and Senators Ron Johnson, Raphael Warnock, and Jon Ossoff. “Our son keeps asking, but there is no response.”
White House suspended travel from India with effect from April 30,2021
again, which has had a devastating impact on the mobility of H-4 and
H1-B visa holders. Netra Chavan, immigration Consultant, California
registered mentions one specific case of last year, in which the
husband went to take care of his sick parents and got stuck in India.
His pregnant wife delivered a baby in his absence. She could not
travel, since she was in her last trimester and lost her home without
the rent money. During the last nine months during her delivery, she
moved to her spouse’s friend’s house in one bedroom, making sure they
were not touching each other or mixing. Chavan says, ”the families do
not separate because of the pandemic at all but due to unnecessary
travel bans. Many have legal visas to travel but do not fall under the
category of travel.”
Anirban Das, the founder and president of Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA), says, “I know many people who are stuck in India because they went to take care of their sick, elderly parents.” Some went home to perform the funeral rites of lost family members and could not return.
Role of Activist Groups
Connecticut-based Rajamanikam, the east coast leader of Save H-4 EAD Advocacy group, has been working with the congressmen and senators on the long delays of renewing H-4 and H-4 EAD visas. She says that with the persistent follow-ups with the legislators, Save H-4 EAD has appealed for the biometric removal.
Many Facebook groups like H4 and H1B visa Holders, Save H-4 EAD group, Skilled Immigrants In America (SIIA) have been actively mobilizing to expedite the H-4 visa renewal. But the mere ban on biometrics is not the way to change the fate of these visa holders. Unless and until the USCIS changes its attitude towards the H-4 and H 1-B visa holders as significant taxpayers and contributors to the U.S. economy, this sort of injustice will continue.
Names with * mark have been changed to protect the privacy of the H- 4 visa holders.
Alice Tao, Rising Sophomore Harker School, San Jose; Elvis Han, Rising Senior Harker School, San Jose; Justin Ho, Rising Sophomore Valley Christian High School, San Jose; and Hana Mohammad, Rising Senior Leigh High School, San Jose, also contributed to this story.
(Top photo: Bay Area SaveH4EAD volunteers drawing attention to H-4 EAD delays.)
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 postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the 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 a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork 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.