Taran (name changed) lost her job as a nurse in Seattle in 2020. She did not become unemployed because of her skills or the state of the economy during the pandemic, but because the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) did not renew her employment authorisation in time.
She is in the US on a H-4 dependent visa which is connected to her husband’s H-1B highly-skilled category work visa.
She had applied for an extension to her H-4EAD (H-4 Employment Authorisation Document) authorisation, which is linked to her H-4 visa. When that did not come through in time, she lost her nursing job, which meant a possible second break in her career.
‘We Are Separated By Borders & Immigration’
Taran was a doctor and assistant professor at a medical college in India. She chose to give that up to follow her husband when he got an opportunity to work in US. After her recent job loss, she was not ready for another break in her career: “My identity was lost once when I moved from India, and I am not ready to lose it again. I had a good career in India and I started from zero here.”
Tired of ‘being vulnerable’, Taran found a nursing role in Canada in November 2020, and made the difficult decision to leave her family in the US to pursue her new work. The Canadian work permit was issued to her within one week. She misses her two young children and husband:
“We are separated by borders and immigration. I was hoping to visit them at the end of December but my H-4 stamping has been further postponed.”
Taran and her family were not together to celebrate the Christmas and New Year holidays, because the Trump administration extended the travel ban, which resulted in stamping of their families’ visas getting pushed to the end of March 2021. The stamping on their visas is essential for them to re-enter US if they travel to another country.
How Work Permit Process For Dependent Spouses Slowed Down Under Trump Presidency
Taran is among thousands of immigrants in US who lost jobs because of delays by USCIS under the Trump administration in renewing their H-4 visa work authorisations, H-4EADs. The work permits are issued to spouses of immigrants on H-1B visas, after their employers have begun the process of sponsoring their families’ Green Cards. The rule change for H-4 dependent category visa holders was introduced in 2015, before Trump became president, allowing H-4 dependents with a Green Card petition to apply for work permits.
According to USCIS data, 93 percent of the more than 90,000 people who were granted new H-4EADs from 2015 to 2018 were women, most of whom are from India. 93 percent of H-4EAD holders are South Asian women.
The processing of work permits for the dependent spouses slowed down during Trump presidency.
USCIS made biometric finger printing mandatory for H-4 applicants in March 2019, including for each renewal, and ended premium processing of H-4 visa and H-4EAD applications. The H-1B visa holders can choose premium processing for renewals without finger printing, but the H-4 holder spouses cannot. USCIS is facing multiple court cases in US related to delays in processing H-4EADs. Trump ran on an anti-immigrant campaign, targeting the spouses of H-1B workers by threatening to annul the H4-EAD program. He introduced an executive order in 2017 to tighten regulations on immigrants to promote hiring of American citizens.
Will Biden Admin Do Away With Biometrics, And Expedite H4 Work Permits?
Immigration Attorneys like New York-based Cyrus Mehta understand that Joe Biden has the authority to bring in positive changes as promised during his campaign.
“I see it changing administratively — no more biometrics, and quicker processing of H4 work permits. Premium processing will be continued by Biden. I don’t see Biden take away the EAD for H4.”
Cyrus Mehta is of the opinion that Biden does not like the work visa travel ban that Trump extended.
“Biden has the authority to rescind it. I am sure he doesn’t like it. If politically unpalatable to do due to high unemployment numbers during the pandemic, I don’t see him extending it beyond March. The ban is with respect to received H-1Bs who can’t come in.”
Kamala Harris is very supportive of work authorisation for H-4 holders. As a senator in 2018, she wrote a letter to USCIS and DHS (Department of Homeland Security), urging them not to revoke the H-4EADs a month after a court filing revealed senior DHS leadership were contemplating it.
Why Some Women In ‘Liberal’ America Have To Stay Home & Abandon Their Dreams
Neha Mahajan came to US in 2008 as an H-4 dependent spouse. A famous host of a prominent FM desi radio show in the New York-New Jersey area, she was a journalist and popular news anchor on TV Today’s ‘Aajtak News Network’ in New Delhi before moving to US.
In spite of her Masters in English Literature and an illustrious media career, Neha was not able to work till 2015 seven years of being a dependent — she became an activist and a strong supporter of work authorisation for H-4 visa holders.
She co-founded the advocacy group SIIA (Skilled Immigrants in America) to advocate fairness for immigrant families who, with their Green Card petitions, are as Obama called them, ‘Americans-in-Waiting’.
Neha is the director of SIIA, which has reached out to hundreds of State and federal lawmakers, sharing with them experiences of highly qualified, ambitious women on H-4 visas.
“US, a first world nation, considered the harbinger of women’s rights and equality, has a certain section of women forced to stay at home and not realise their dreams because of an archaic system. An H-4 visa holder has no social security number assigned to them, which means that as far as USCIS and US are concerned they don’t exist. They don’t have an identity and they can’t have a bank account in their name. I worked in India for many years and had a bank account since my college days. In many states spouses on H-4 can’t even apply for a driving license. It is the most regressive visa category. It is called a ‘golden cage’ for a reason. The way it plays on your psyche — ki bas reh lo kisi ki daya pe.”
H-4EAD Application: An Arduous Process
It was many years of efforts by H-4 visa holders like Neha Mahajan that had Obama issue an executive order in 2015 introducing employment authorisation for H-4 holders who had an approved Green Card petition. Neha received her H4-EAD soon after, but continues to feel vulnerable in the green card queue, when the employment permit expires. “The H-4EAD processing can now take up to 10 months, guaranteeing that existing EADs will expire, and H-4 visa holders will certainly lose their jobs, as they are allowed to apply for extensions only 6 months before expiration.”
The processing delays during the Trump administration that has left a large number Indian women in US without work is a reminder of the past status of women on H-4 visas — since its formulation in 1990 till the rules changed in 2015, they were not permitted to work.
Dr Amy Bhatt has worked with South Asian women H-4 visa holders who are unable to use their education and expertise due to immigration laws, leading to her PhD.
Why Some Indian Women In US Feel ‘Stripped Of Autonomy’
Author of ‘High-Tech Housewives: Indian IT Workers, Gendered Labor, and Transmigration’, Dr Amy Bhatt found one thing common in the experiences of Indian women on H-4 visas: “Even in the best of circumstances, the feeling of being completely stripped of autonomy and independence, resulted in mental health issues.”
She identified a trend that H-4 holders were increasingly sharing feedback with women and families in India who planned to move to US, amounting to it being too agonising to not being able to work, suggesting them to not come to US because of legal constraints of H1B and H-4.
Dr Amy Bhatt finds that fears intensified during the Trump presidency.
“A lot of progress was made during Obama years. But uncertainty increased during the Trump years. More people are exploring the idea of leaving US, especially women who had got employment authorisation and then lost it.”
Largest Share Of H1-Bs Go To Indian Men
In spite of all the hardships, the US continues to be a magnet for many aspirational immigrants who consider it their dream ‘land of opportunity’. Perceived as the global epicentre of technology, it continues to symbolise success. H1-B remains the coveted visa. Indian men make up the majority of H-1B holders — up to 85,000 are allowed in to US every year.
A country can receive only up to 7 percent of Green Cards in a year. With the largest share of H1-Bs going to Indian men, Green Card backlogs affect Indian H1-B holders and their H-4 dependent families the most. Indian advocacy groups have been petitioning US law makers to reform the ‘country caps’ aspect of Green Card allotment.
Indian H1-B families feel if they receive Green Cards as quickly as other immigrants from other countries, then the H-4 employment permit issue will get solved.
The long Green Card queue holds back Indian women on H-4 visas from getting their work permits. These Indian families are calling on the Biden-Harris administration to repair the processing delays and reduce uncertainty for Indian women on H-4 visas whose careers remain on hold.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)