- Highly qualified spouses, mostly women, of H-1B visa holders live in a state of constant fear, uncertainty and humiliation.
In a historic decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled against the Trump administration’s attempt to end the Obama-era immigration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, for the young undocumented immigrants to shield them from deportation and allow work permits. Given this ruling, there is a widespread optimism that H4-EAD issued to the dependents of H-1B visa holders in 2015, allowing them to work here in the United States, too, can be protected on the same grounds.
Anirban Das, the founder President of Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA), with a 150,000 membership of H-1B and H4 visa holders, observes that “the DACA ruling tells the administration that they cannot simply terminate a program like H4-EAD.”
Over recent weeks, businesses and industry groups have expressed their concerns highlighting the importance of the high-skilled workforce to the U.S. economy. Many technology companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Zoom and Oracle have been supporting the H-1B and H4-EAD visa holders for their own sustenance. America’s foreign-born workforce, according to the Information Technology Industry Council “is enabling many Americans to continue to work remotely during the COVID- 19 pandemic and is playing an essential role to keep businesses running securely and people connected”.
The technology boom of the 1990s and the Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT 1990) introduced the distinctive categories of nonimmigrant H-1B and dependent H4 visas for people who accompany the H-1B visa holders each year. This visa category opened the floodgates for the migration of skilled high-tech (computer engineers and programmers and others) workers to the U.S. from all over the world.
India has contributed the largest pool of these high skilled workers. There are about 500, 000 people on H-1B visas and about 80% of them are from India. The most common recipients of H-B visas are male high-tech workers. Their wives, the dependent H4 visa holders, most of whom are highly educated and were working before migration, came to this country as dependents and were not allowed to work. They became economically, socially and psychologically dependent on their husbands.
Sanjoy Chakravorty and his colleagues in their book, “The Other One Percent” observe that “H4 visa has been dubbed the ‘depression visa’ and the ‘prisoner visa.’ Ironically, instead of escaping patriarchy by leaving India, their home country, they find a new kind of patriarchy reinforced, since they are completely dependent on their husbands.” In “Visa Wives: Emigration Stories of Indian Women in the US,” author M.B. Radhika says, “women follow their husbands because the number of men following their wives is negligible. Despite our qualifications that make us eligible to work, we become dependent visa wives, by rule.” Interviews with many of these women reveal that they have experienced a loss of dignity, self-identity and increased self depreciation.
In May 2015, supported by sympathetic political leaders, the Obama administration through an executive order introduced employment authorization for certain H4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrant visa holders who have already filed for permanent residency. H4 visa holders without permanent residency approval remained stranded. Since then, more than 100,000 dependent spouses have acquired work authorization with 93% of them being women.
The Trump administration has announced its intent to revoke the employment authorization for H-4 visa holders as a part of its Buy American and Hire American Executive Order. That has left these visa holders in a state of constant fear of the department of Homeland Security taking steps to rescind this program. Even with work authorization, these H4-EAD holders are looked upon as unwelcome and are subject to all kinds of restrictions by the state, threatening their economic and family stability, imposing gender norms discarded by the U.S. a long time ago.
Since June 2019, I have interviewed a dozen H4-EAD and H-1B visa holders and have collected their experiences since they arrived in this country. Here I am going to sum up those narratives, bringing their own voice to document the situation in which they find themselves.
In 2013, Sumita Maity (the first names of the respondents here have been changed at their request) had earned a Ph.D. in psychology from a prestigious university in India. After marriage, she had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to be with her husband who was on an H-1B visa. She was exploring a teaching opportunity to make gainful use of her doctorate. Since she was on H4 visa, she was not allowed to take up a job. She decided to take GMAT and earn an MBA degree to eventually get her ticket to work.
In the meantime, her husband was sponsored for a green card by his company. In 2015, when President Obama’s executive order for H4 visa holders was passed, Sumita was one of the lucky ones to get her H4 EAD. By then Sumita had gone through tremendous emotional upheaval which was affecting her personal life. Her hopes and dreams of a teaching career were fast slipping away. Being far away from her near and dear ones she was feeling lost. She got pregnant and now with a baby boy works part time in a counselling office. She is worried that her EAD is valid only till 2020. “I need to apply for extension.” Sumita’s biggest worry is if the H4-EAD is revoked, she will lose the basic right to work based on her qualification, expertise and experience.
President Trump’s threat to ban H4-EAD makes these women realize that even though they have paid top dollars to get an American degree and have contributed to the American economy, they are not treated equally. They feel vulnerable and easily expendable.
Twenty-eight-year old Midori Sridharan was born in Chennai, India. She received her bachelor’s degree in science. In December 2012, she got married in India and got the H4 visa to join her husband who was on an H-1B visa, working in California. Midori got her master’s degree in the U.S. and got the EAD status in 2015. Now she works at Abbott Laboratories as a statistical analyst. With the H4-EAD, Midori explains “I became more independent.” When asked about President Trump’s recent threat to ban H4EAD, she says that the government should recognize the positive impact many immigrants with the H4 visa have on American society through their specialized qualification. “They should recognize people like me and should not revoke H4 EAD policy.”
Patriarchal Gender Norms
Several of my sources admit that with the H4-EAD, their dependent status still lingers. The patriarchal gender norm of the man being the provider and the woman the reproducer which has been long discarded by the American system still prevails. Since H4-EAD visa is dependent on spousal H-1B visa, many of them aim to switch their visa status.
Aviva Panda is a bubbly 31 years old who lives in a prestigious university town in Michigan. Following a flourishing corporate career in Kolkata, she came to the U.S. on a H4 visa in 2018. After marriage in 2017, she struggled to live away from her husband for a year. Finally, she resigned from her job and joined her husband. “I was earning money and had an independent life. (But) I had to leave my job because how long could we stay separate?” Here the first thing she lost is her earnings. “Earning is not about money but having an identity. After one year of staying at home, I was feeling very low. You can do nothing but sit at home. I had set up my mind that I am not going to depend on anybody”.
In 2019, Aviva got her H4-EAD. Still she feels like a lesser being. Her visa validity is based on her husband’s H-1B status. Then Aviva’s company had sponsored her for an H-1B visa, but to no avail. “There were 190,000 applications in 2019- 20. On lottery 65,000 were selected and unfortunately I was not one of them. I will try again next year.” H-1B visa is not tied to one’s performance but totally depends on the lottery system. For Aviva, the corona pandemic has been hard. “The people on contract have had to take a pay cut. Many have been fired from their jobs as well. Projects were going on hold”. She is worried that she may lose her job and her financial independence.
Neha Vyas, on H4-EAD, from Virginia says that in 2017 after multiple interviews she finally landed a job as an architect. Neha’s employers have been very impressed with her performance. “They had received three hundred applications and had no luck to find someone because it is such a specialized job and requires so much more than a simple architecture degree,” she says. Because of her sterling performance and specialized skill, for the last three years, her company has sponsored her for an H-1B visa, but she has had no luck with the lottery system.
These H-4 EAD visa holders are highly skilled professionals, and are making vital contributions to the success of the technology companies. But they face numerous bureaucratic constraints to keep their jobs. Anima Panda from Connecticut says that the greatest challenge she faces in this country is the renewal of her EAD and the uncertainty tied to it. Since last year USCIS has taken an unusually long time to renew the EAD. As a result, several people have lost their jobs.
Pankaj Verma (not his real name) is one the few men on H4 visa. EAD has to be renewed either every year or three years depending on the validity of the accompanying H-1B visa holder. His EAD was up for renewal and he had recently applied for it six months before it expired. The renewal did not happen in time. He has to wait for the biometric clearance, which could not be done because application support centers have been closed during pandemic. They are independent contractors and are expected to open on July 13 but may not run in full capacity. So what happens to people waiting for their EAD renewal in the interim? Verma says “unless I get the work extension, I will lose my job.” His mental agony cannot be measured.
Neha Mahajan, who works as a radio host from New Jersey and has been on H4-EAD visa since 2015, is also fearful of renewal delays. “Right now, USCIS is taking anywhere between a couple of months to a year to renew H4 EAD,” she says.
The opposition to the high skilled foreign workers is quite strong among the advocates of reduced immigration who claim that changes are necessary to protect American workers. This will make the situation of H-1B and H4 EAD visa workers more precarious and uncertain. In support of H4 EAD and H-1B visa holders, Netra Chavan, an immigration counselor from the San Francisco Bay area, observes that “the U.S. invited them as guest workers and approved their I-140 and now they are stuck because of the green card backlog.” The companies who sponsor them recognize that what these employees offer is not just skilled labor, but an advanced level of experience one gets by staying with the same company over a period of time. The companies need them and clearly, they are not replacing the jobs of U.S. citizens.
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.