(This is the second part of the article on US green card backlogs and the EAGLE Act. Read the first part of the article here.)
Considered the top tech talent in the world, the engineers and scientists on H1-B visas design products which decide crucial aspects of how the world lives and works, but their own life remains uncertain despite approved green card applications, because of archaic immigration policies.
The green card backlog impacts desi families in a multitude of ways. Considered one of the most unnecessary hurdles is the need to renew their H1-B visas and H-4 visas of their dependent spouse and minor children, every three years, which involves application paperwork and mandatory fingerprinting. Renewed visa stamps at an American embassy are required to re-enter USA in case of foreign travel.
The most harrowing experiences created by this bureaucratic procedure were seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Indians faced unimaginable choices – to fly to India to attend to their elderly parents, perform cremations or keep their jobs in the US.
Atlanta-based Parag lost both his parents to COVID-19 in 2021. Shattered by the loss, when he flew to India amid a raging pandemic, he knew that he won’t be able to return to the US for a considerable but unpredictable length of time.
There were no renewal stamping appointments available at the US embassy or its consulates, which were closed, denying him the dignity to grieve.
“Where is the clarity? The country is built on no taxation without representation. I pay taxes in the US. I should have recourse,” shared Parag, who was eventually able to return after many weeks of uncertainty.
To address this bureaucratic obstacle, in September 2022, a presidential commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders approved a recommendation – the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) should update its policy to fast track the visa process and allow for stamping of H1-B visas inside the US. If accepted by US President Joe Biden, it will bring relief to tens of thousands of foreign professionals, particularly from India.
The recommendation was moved by Indian American member of the commission, Ajay Jain Bhutoria. He is also working to reduce the long waits Indians face in procuring visitor visas to travel to the US since the pandemic. The wait times this year peaked to two years.
Employment Authorisation for Spouses
Green Card opens numerous opportunities for immigrant families that an American life offers, which Indians are denied for years, some likely for their lifetimes.
The H-4 dependent visa holder spouses of H1-B holders, similarly educated and qualified, have been permitted (with an approved GC petition) employment in the USA since 2014 but the authorisation expires as soon as their H-4 visas expire, every three years. The renewal process creates job losses and breaks in employment, making it difficult to build a career.
Over 93 percent of current H-4EAD (H4 Employment Authorisation Document) holders are South Asian women. Careers in science, technology, and health care are popular among desi H-4EADs, holding advance degrees and having work experience. The lack of agency and not having a legal identity outside of one's husband is stifling for these highly educated spouses of H1-Bs.
Shilpa (name changed), a mother of two, lost her job when her H-4 renewal didn’t come in time. Her visa and her husband’s H1-B visa needs renewal every three years even though they are in the green card queue. She remembers a day when she became nervous as her driving license was linked to her H-4 employment authorisation.
“I remember I sat down on a roadside pavement and started crying, as I didn’t want to do anything illegal. I contacted my local Senator and received a reply from USCIS through them, saying – ‘her driving license is not necessary as she is dependent on her husband, who is supposed to take care of all her needs.’ It felt like living in Saudi Arabia where women aren’t allowed to drive,” she recalls.
Neha Mahajan was a news anchor with a prominent news channel in India before moving to the US. Years of not being able to work on a H-4 visa, she became a part of the advocacy movement that pushed Barack Obama administration to grant employment authorisation to H-4 visa holders, if they had an approved green card petition.
“This is a first world nation, harbinger of women’s rights and equality where a certain section of women is forced to stay at home and not realise their dreams. Their children age out. H1-Bs lose 1-15 years of their life in this limbo. It’s called a golden cage for that reasonNeha Mahajan
Amy Bhatt is the author of The High-Tech Housewives: Indian IT Workers, Gendered Labor, and Transmigration – a book about Indian women on H-4 visas.
“Coming here is a signal that a professional has achieved a certain level of success, but even in the best of circumstances, H-4 visa holders being completely stripped of autonomy and independence results in mental health issues. The experiences of children of H-4 visa holders has a bigger impact on families. They come here as very young children who’s aging out has become a big concern, causing anxiety and financial repercussions,” she says.
The ‘aging out’ of children (not born in the USA) of H1-B holders in the green card queue is a heart-breaking consequence of long wait. They are permitted to live in the US on H-4 dependent visas only till they are minors. As per Cato estimates, "roughly 90,000 children of immigrants – mainly Indians – will age out of green card eligibility during their waits’."
If the green card queue was equitable for immigrants of all nationalities, Indian families would not face the anguish and uncertainty of their children being separated from them, forced to live away in a distant country they hardly recognise.
Neha and her husband Ashu Mahajan had to make logistical and financial plans for the possibility of their older India-born daughter aging out – the youngster would stay with her grandmother in India upon turning 21 years and return to the USA on a student visa, paying a much higher tuition as a foreign student.
Despite hardships, the USA continues to be a magnet for many aspirational immigrants who consider its cutting-edge work environment their dream ‘land of opportunity’. Perceived as the global epicenter of technology, it continues to symbolise success.
The coveted H1-B visa category was created by the Immigration Act of 1990 to import workers from engineering, mathematics, science, and medicine disciplines to fulfil acutely needed specialty occupations. Given how critical their inputs are for the US economy, the immigration system is overdue for an acutely required overhaul.
Not the First Effort to Overhaul Visa Process
When the House of representatives votes this week on the EAGLE Act 2022, it will not be for the first time such Bills have been tabled in the US Congress.
In 2012, a Bill to remove country limits passed the House but not the Senate. In 2019, the House passed the Fairness for Highly Skilled Immigrants Act with a 365-65 majority, which was amended and cleared by the US Senate in 2020 with unanimous consent – all 100 US Senators voted in favour.
The amended Bill had to go back to the House for voting to become law, but the House ‘did not consider it worthy’ to vote on. The EAGLE Act has some similarities with that Bill.
Immigration reform being tabled in US Congress is a result of decades of work put in by hundreds and thousands of H1-B holders and their families, numerous advocacy groups, bringing awareness to the cause by organising rallies across the country and petitioning their local, state, and federal representatives.
The non-profit group Immigration Voice which launched in 2005, has been at the forefront of the fight for fairness and justice for employment based legal immigrants, including advocacy in the US Congress. It has over 1.2 million members.
The organisation’s president, Aman Kapoor, believes that recessionary cycles of economic activity "always come at a cost which is higher for certain communities."
Pieces of reform like allowing dependent spouses on H-4 visas to work are not insignificant but tackling the main issue will automatically take care of ‘discrimination’ based on country of birth.
“They address symptoms but not the underlying problem which is the Green Card backlog caused by country caps,” he says.
As far as a vote on the EAGLE Act is concerned, Aman, on behalf of “the group of American families and tax-paying law-abiding immigrant families,” urges the House members, “The The Bill ensures that anyone from any country in the world currently in the system will not have to wait longer after the passage of the Bill. This is a commonsense reform which is good for America, Americans, and immigrants.”
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)