Spouses of tech workers with H-1B visas can work in the U.S. with special work permits. But they are now in limbo since the Trump administration indicated it plans to end the work-authorization program this year.
The day that Anushka Bishen learned she would be able to get a work permit, she sat down and cried with joy.
She had moved from India to the U.S. three years earlier to join her husband and had been unable to work the entire time despite having a master’s degree in international public relations from Cardiff University in the U.K. and a background in communications and marketing at two companies in India.
She came to the country legally with a spousal visa, or H-4, granted to the wives and husbands of those who have H-1B, or high-tech, visas. But H-4 visas didn’t allow a person to work in the U.S. — until 2015, when the Obama administration enacted a rule that opened the way for people with spousal visas to obtain permits known as employment authorization documents (EAD).
Visas by the numbers
H-1B visas issued each year
H-1B recipients from India or China (2016)
H-4 visa work permits issued
First half of 2017:
Total under program:
Sources: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Department of State
“It was such an emotional moment for me,” Bishen said of the day she heard about the new rule. “It gave me my life back,” said the Bellevue resident, who is now a communications specialist on the Eastside.
The relief of H-4 visa holders hasn’t lasted long, however. Bishen and spouses who received the work authorizations are now in limbo since the Trump administration indicated it plans to end the program this year. If that happens before they can get new work permits, spouses of H-1B holders in the Seattle area will have to decide whether to stop working in the United States or leave the country.
Microsoft and Amazon are routinely listed among the top applicants for H-1B visas, each applying for thousands of the permits each year. The high-tech visa program allows about 85,000 people each year to enter the country after company sponsors prove their high-end skills cannot be found elsewhere.
Spousal visas allow H-1B visa holders to bring their partners with them to the U.S., women and men who are usually also highly educated. Because of the Puget Sound region’s high concentration of tech companies, a large portion of those spouses end up here.
Some of them thought they might be able to get their own H-1Bs, but those are in high-demand and hard to obtain. Some assumed they could get permanent residence status, or green cards, once they arrived in the country. But obtaining that status can take years.
Green cards are capped each year, and no single country can receive more than 7 percent of the total. That makes it faster to get the permits for people from some countries — say, Norway, because there are fewer applicants.
Meanwhile, applicants from India, China or the Philippines, which generate many more green-card requests, can wait decades.
That meant that many H-4 spouses, usually women, who were used to holding corporate jobs couldn’t work in the U.S. if they joined their partners here.
For Bishen, her first three years in the U.S. without a job were marked with depression and a loss of independence. She had to use her husband’s credit card for everything, even to buy him a gift. She volunteered with nonprofits, but felt useless in a society that puts a strong importance on people’s professions.
“It hurt me on many emotional levels,” she said. “I didn’t want to become a shadow of my husband.”
That changed with the implementation of the Obama-era rule that sped up the work-permit process for spouses with H-4 visas. Once they applied for a green card with approved employer support, they could obtain an employment-authorization document, allowing them to work while waiting for a green card, which could take more than 10 years.
“These families are Americans-in-waiting,” said Doug Rand, co-founder of Seattle immigration-technology startup Boundless, explaining the rationale for the program. Rand was the assistant director for entrepreneurship in the Obama administration and helped implement the 2015 rule.
Since it took effect, about 104,750 H-4 spouses have been approved for work authorizations, according to the latest data through June 2017 from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
So far, a notice in a federal agenda is the only information about the federal government’s plans to change the rule.
“DHS is proposing to remove from its regulations certain H-4 spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants as a class of aliens eligible for employment authorization,” it read. The agency has indicated it could propose details of the rule this month.
For now, it’s unclear if people with current permits could keep working, or what form the new rule would take. A public comment period would open before the new rule could take effect.
Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment.
The standing 2015 rule is the subject of a continuing lawsuit filed by a group that contends the Obama administration did not have the authority to enact the rule — that it should be up to Congress.
Attorney John Miano, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies who is representing the group, contends that spousal recipients of work permits should be counted against the country’s H-1B quota, not given a separate allocation.
The upcoming rule from the Trump administration could help avoid “an Obama-created train wreck,” he said.
“This is the first administration I can remember that’s actually said it wants to do anything to protect American workers,” Miano added.
The proposed rule change jibes with 2017’s “Buy American, Hire American” act, which set out the Trump administration’s desire to reform the H-1B visa program and focus on hiring workers who are U.S. citizens.
Not much has come of H-1B reforms, apart from whispers and speculation about the administration cracking down. A bill winding its way through the Senate would actually increase the quota of H-1B visas and guarantee some spousal work permits.
Protecting the program
Unlike H-1B visas, the employment-authorization documents that H-4 spouses can obtain are not tied to a specific employer.
To Priya Chandrasekaran, that means spouses have largely been on their own in their efforts to protect the program. She runs the Washington chapter of an advocacy group, Save H4-EAD, that is urging lawmakers to keep the work-permit program in place.
“I’m super paranoid that I’ll be asked to stay home and not work,” said Chandrasekaran, who holds one of the H-4 work authorizations and is an accountant in Lynnwood. “I’m worried about the financial stability of our family.”
The wives and husbands do have some institutional backing, however, from their spouses’ employers. Amazon and Microsoft both said they support the continuation of the spousal work program and are in contact with members of Congress.
“We’ve urged the administration to retain H-4 spousal work authorization, given its importance to our employees and their spouses who are stuck in a decades-long green-card backlog,” Microsoft President Brad Smith said in a statement.
In the shadow
But there’s no guarantee the backing from Big Tech will help, and the uncertainty of their employment status is adding to the anxiety of H-4 spouses.
Devayani Charde is weighing whether she will have to move to Canada in a few months. She’d prefer not to — it would mean once again going through a lengthy process of getting licensed for her job.
The 32-year-old was a licensed physical therapist in India before she immigrated to the U.S. in 2013 to join her husband, who has an H-1B visa. She spent two years taking equivalency courses in the U.S. to become licensed as a doctor of physical therapy. And after getting a work authorization, she got a job as a physical therapist in Seattle.
She doesn’t want to stop working — especially after the investment she made in getting her U.S. license — and also doesn’t want to live away from her husband.
“It’s like my own identity,” she said, explaining the importance of having a job. “When you’re in this society or meet people, you are known for what you are and what you do. I felt like it was saying ‘you’re going to lose your identity,’ ” she said, referring to the threat of losing her work permit.
Spouses of H-1B recipients are often as highly skilled and qualified as their high-tech partners, said Amy Bhatt, an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Bhatt, who earned a doctorate in feminist studies from the University of Washington, wrote a book about wives from India living in the Puget Sound region.
Before the 2015 work authorizations for H-4 spouses, many of the women she spoke with spent their time volunteering with startups to keep their skills sharp.
“We ended up with all these women in the economy but not necessarily being recognized as part of the economy,” she said.
There was a strong push from tech companies for the 2015 rule, she said, because they wanted to keep their H-1B workers and attract more. Domestic-violence victim advocacy organizations also pushed for the rule, arguing that not allowing women to work made them more financially and emotionally dependent on their husbands.
It comes down to a feeling of self-worth, Bishen, the Bellevue resident, said. The women are legal immigrants, she pointed out, and want to contribute to society.
“I cannot even think about going back to those dark times” before 2015, she said. “There’s much at stake.”
Editor’s note: The comment thread on this story has been closed to new submissions.