The spouses of some immigrant tech workers, whose visas haven’t allowed them to work in the U.S., may soon be able to apply for work permits under an executive order on immigration. “I’m really excited,’ said one, who hasn’t worked since moving here from India eight years ago.

Share story

To ready herself for a job hunt, Niyati Desai has started updating her résumé and reaching out to professional contacts.

In her native India, Desai, 32, managed marketing accounts for global companies such as Procter & Gamble and Prudential. But she worries about the eight-year gap in her employment history.

“No matter how smart you think you are, things change. I’m trying to study up, but it’s hard to make up for that lost time in the workplace,” she said.

Desai moved to Kirkland in 2007 to join her husband, a network engineer, who is here on a highly skilled-worker visa, the type companies such as Microsoft and Amazon have used to recruit high-tech workers from around the world. And until recently, spouses such as Desai, admitted to the U.S. on their own H-4 visas, were prohibited from getting jobs.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Now, beginning in late May, a change in federal rules adopted under President Obama’s executive order on immigration will allow Desai and hundreds of other spouses in the region, most of them women, to apply for work permits — and reclaim their professional lives.

“I’m really excited. I’m waiting for May 26. It’s going to seem like a miraculous day,” she said.

Not all spouses will be eligible. Their working partner must have been approved to apply for a green card. But for those whose spouse’s application is well under way, they will no longer have to wait — sometimes eight or 10 years for applicants from China and India — for the U.S. government to issue both permanent legal status.

That wait time has been called “a curse” on the Facebook page of spouses supporting the change in work authorization. Other commentators have called it a “golden cage” because under the H-4 visa, these spouses’ only options were to return to school, volunteer or focus on family life and managing the home.

Tahmina Watson, a Seattle immigration attorney, said the prohibitions against work have been particularly hard because the wives of highly skilled workers tend to be highly educated themselves.

180,000 spouses will apply for employment eligibility this year and an additional 55,000 annually in coming years.

“These women really want to contribute. They have advanced degrees in science, mathematics, business. When they can’t work, they feel inferior, useless. It’s a loss for them and a loss for industry.”

And she noted that the restriction on work has hurt American businesses’ competitiveness. Other countries, including Canada and Great Britain, automatically grant work visas to spouses when their partner is hired on a highly skilled-worker visa.

Still, not everyone is celebrating the rule change.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the limits on visas are meant to protect Americans.

“By allowing spouses of H-1B visa holders to work, the administration is essentially doubling the number of professionals who will compete for American jobs. They (the employers) don’t even have to demonstrate a lack of available American workers,” Mehlman said.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that about 180,000 spouses will apply for employment eligibility this year and an additional 55,000 annually in coming years. The government doesn’t have an estimate for the numbers in each state or region.

Mehlman also expressed limited sympathy for highly educated women who find themselves unable to pursue their own careers.

“No one comes here unless it’s in their interest to do so,” he said. “The onus is on them to understand the terms and conditions.”

A “hit” on self-esteem

Niyati Desai said she knew nothing about the H-4 visa before she came to Seattle in 2007 and started applying for jobs. As firm after firm told her they were unwilling to undertake the time and expense necessary to sponsor her for her own work visa, she became increasingly despondent.

Niyati Desai, of Kirkland, held advertising and marketing jobs in Mumbai before her husband took a Seattle job. She’s been waiting years for a work permit. With her is son Arsh Gupta. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Niyati Desai, of Kirkland, held advertising and marketing jobs in Mumbai before her husband took a Seattle job. She’s been waiting years for a work permit. With her is son Arsh Gupta. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

“People would ask me at parties what I did and I would have to say, ‘Nothing.’ It was a dark and gloomy time. I was feeling very depressed.”

Her husband, Abhi Gupta, said he watched as eight years passed and his talented, accomplished wife slowly gave up on her professional dreams.

“It’s more than just the loss of economic opportunity for the family,” said Gupta. “It’s a hit on your self-esteem. One day you’re a top-notch marketing professional, the next day, you don’t have a career. It took a toll on her identity.”

She and her husband decided to start their family and now have a nearly 2-year-old son. But with the news that H-4 spouses could begin applying for work permits, she’s begun to use the two mornings a week that her son is in day care to start searching online for marketing jobs and the qualifications needed to apply.

She realizes she may have to return to college to update her skills, but said, “I’ve started to feel hopeful again.”

“I struggled, I cried”

Magdalena Bragun was a 21-year-old law student in Poland when her husband accepted a job here with Microsoft in 2001. Five years later, she was still waiting for approval of her husband’s green-card application, giving her the right to work.

“When the waiting went on year after year, when I still didn’t have a purpose, I struggled, I cried every two weeks. I had to find something meaningful to do with my life,” Bragun said.

Bragun volunteered at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which gives free legal advice to low-income immigrants. There she heard stories of women who couldn’t speak English, who didn’t understand the legal system or their rights, who were trapped in relationships with husbands who controlled their money, their movements and their sense of self-worth.

Her friends, also the wives of high-tech professionals, lived more affluent lives, and yet Bragun said many also were isolated and almost completely dependent on their husbands’ goodwill.

She credits her own husband with unwavering support and encouragement, but said, “I saw so many women whose husbands turned out not to be great guys.”

Ultimately, she and her husband saved up the $100,000 it would cost for her to go to law school. By the time she graduated in 2008 from Seattle University School of Law, summa cum laude, her husband had received his green card and she took a job with a Seattle law firm.

“The Golden Cage”

Before she graduated, Bragun wrote an article for the Seattle University Law Review titled “The Golden Cage: How Immigration Law Turns Women into Involuntary Housewives.” She remembers there was almost nothing written on the issue at the time and few of her acquaintances talked about it, even in private.

So she drew on her own experience and those of the women she’d advised at the law clinic, to detail the cascade of unintended consequences of not allowing spouses to seek employment. They couldn’t get a Social Security card or a credit card, open a bank account, rent an apartment, qualify for a student loan or any of dozens of things that she said help a person establish an identity in this country and live an independent life.

Over the following years, her image of the golden cage and the term “involuntary housewife” helped crystallize the experiences of a growing number of immigrant women who found their own lives put on indefinite hold because of their visa status.

I think of my work permit as this treasured piece of paper that I waited so long to get.”

Microsoft also expressed interest in using her law-review article, the arguments about both the personal toll to spouses and the loss of potential talent to the American workforce, to lobby the U.S. government to speed up the work authorization for H-4 visa holders.

Bragun, who now runs her own law firm in Issaquah, said she is encouraged by the federal rule change. Although not every spouse will benefit, she said, it’s a start toward acknowledging the talent and skills these women offer the U.S. workforce and economy.

More important, she argues, work — the right to be self-sufficient, to pursue one’s own interests and goals, to earn money and an independent identity — is a basic human right. She notes the irony of American leaders advocating for women’s equality around the world while denying that same equality to many immigrant women here at home.

“I’m shaped to this day by those years without work,” she said. “I think about work and the importance of work. I think of my work permit as this treasured piece of paper that I waited so long to get.”