Respite likely for tens of thousands of spouses.
SAN FRANCISCO: The Department of Homeland Security recently issued a press release which brought a collective sigh of relief from H4 visa holders around the country.
The announcement featured the proposed ruling to extend employment authorization to spouses of certain H-1B workers, and a proposal to enhance opportunities for certain groups of highly-skilled workers by removing obstacles to their remaining stay in the United States.
For young women like Reena and Subha (full names not being revealed upon request), cooling their heels at home while their medical and engineering degrees gather dust on the mantle, this call for change brings them one step closer to realization of their potential.
When her H-1B visa expired, Subha had to convert to a dependent H4 visa, or the alternative option was to move out of the country, as she didn’t have approved labor certification.
“It takes ages for someone of Indian origin to get an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) through GC (Green Card) application. We have been waiting for an EAD (through my husband) for the last three years. Under current circumstances, there’s a slim chance of it happening in the near future,” said Subha in an interview to The American Bazaar.
Subha talks of scores of women who share her predicament. They feel trapped by what they call, the ‘prisoner’s visa’. They form support groups for one another.
“Some of the women are on the brink of depression”, says Subha.
When the new law comes to effect, 97,000 qualified H4 visa spouses could get EAD immediately and as many as 30,000 in subsequent years. This is a milestone for H4 restructuring; the culmination of the tireless efforts of H4 advocates to gather momentum for their cause.
The H4 issue lacks heavyweight lobbyists to make some noise for them in Congress, so the women (the H4 spouses are predominantly women) have taken on the political activism, running from blog to post, creating forums and documentaries, and campaigning for H4 immigration reform.
Presently, an H4 visa holder is not entitled to an EAD or to own or operate a business venture. A student on an H4 visa is not eligible for scholarships, student loans, nor allowed to take up part-time work. The visa imposes legal restrictions on the dependent, whose status is irrevocably tied to the principal H-1B holder.
The current proposal supporting H4 spouses is just a stepping stone for a wider immigration overhaul. Further administrative fixes for the H4 visa holding children are imperative; provisions which afford them work permits and financial aid for college.
In instances of torture and abuse of H4 dependent spouses, many cases go unreported, as there is fear and threat of deportation or consequently, landing the principal H1B visa spouse behind bars, which would anyway mean financial ruination and eventual loss of legal status to continue living in the country.
Following up with women featured in an earlier story on H4 visa holders, Sana, an engineer from Bangalore, has moved back to India.
Thanafez, who earned her Ph.D. in 2012, fervently hopes that this ruling will pass. She started her Green Card application earlier in the year, and is waiting for her labor clearance any day. The implementation of this rule will help her restart her career, though she is apprehensive about getting back into the work force.
“I do not know how to explain the long gap in my resume. I probably have to start from scratch and update myself with all the recent developments in the field. My fellow Doctoral colleagues from Aberdeen University often express concern to settle in US when they hear of my situation,” said Thanafez.
As the ruling awaits it fate after the decisive 60 day period of public comments, detractors are quick to point out that the H4 predicament is the result of a deliberate choice of the spouses, who opted to come to the U.S on this visa. The psychological fallouts of these women are relegated as ‘unintended consequences’ of attracting the world’s best and brightest.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton has gone on record to state, “look at who these woman are, they are almost all upper-class women who made a family decision…you had every privilege in India, which is denied to almost all, you do not get special treatment here.”
Well, here are some of the so-called privileges these women faced back home in their quest to earn their ‘free ride’ to the US: discrimination against female education; cutthroat competition from more than 50,000 peers at competitive exams; eve-teasing and molestation in public transportation, classrooms, and work places; and finally making the tough choice between a lucrative career and uniting with her family.
These women are caught between the fickle laws of two countries. Contrary to the public notion, it is not privileges they seek, but a level playing field to contribute to their families and the community.