Hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled foreign workers come to the US every year to work mostly for technology companies, on visas known as H1Bs. Many of them bring their spouses with them. But they are prohibited from working. Many of them leave successful careers behind for lonely lives in the United States. Advocates have been fighting for their right to work. And next month, some of them will take a step in that direction.
Adélie Pontay reports.
Every day, Neha Mahajan picks up her younger daughter when class lets out.
After her first daughter was born, she set aside her career as a television journalist in India She was ready to go back to work when her husband announced that he’d been promoted. His company wanted him to move to New York, to work in the IT department of a finance company.
And since then, she hasn’t been able to work a single day.
MAHAJAN: “It might sound clichéd, but I am not the kind of human being I had envisioned I would become.”
Mahajan came to the US on what’s known as an H4 visa. It’s for spouses of highly-skilled workers. But it does not give the spouses permission to work. Mahajan’s 9-year-old daughter wonders why her mom is always at home.
MAHAJAN: “She would ask me, ‘why don’t you work?’ and I would tell her, oh you know president Obama doesn’t want me to work so that’s why I’m sitting here.”
It’s regulations and not the president that prevent her from working, and they’d been on the books for years before Obama took office. Late last year, when President Obama took executive action to change immigration law for undocumented immigrants he also changed the employment picture for spouses like Mahajan, who have permission to live here, but not permission to work.
The visa they have is often called the “trailing spouse visa” or the “depression visa.” majority of them come from India or China, and like their partners, most of them are highly-skilled professionals. Neha Mahajan has had a hard time coming to terms with the reality that she can’t have a career.
MAHAJAN: I could not be a mentor to my girls like I had imagined myself to be. If I had a solid career for myself, my girls would look up to me right? They would want to become like me. I don’t know right now what they think of me.
Critics of the H4 visa say the rules are inconsistent and some spouses of workers who have other visas CAN work. Most of them come from Europe or Australia. Shivali Shah is an immigration attorney in Washington who sees no logical reason why spouses from Asia should be treated differently.
SHAH: Why is it that we don’t give the spouses of H1B workers that same privilege. The fact that we’re treating these predominantly Asian workers not as full human beings is blatantly unfair and borderline racist.
Not working takes a toll on the spouses, according to Pallavi Banerjee. She’s a sociologist at Vanderbilt University who’d been studying H4 visa holders for several years.
BANERJEE: Some of the husbands of the H4 visa holders actually told me that they were so concerned about their wives being depressed and not being able to come to term with the fact that they were legally dependent these men often would call their wives multiple times just to make sure they haven’t jumped of the window.
She found that women on H4 visas battle depression and suicidal thoughts. She also studied some of the men who have followed their wives here.
BANERJEE: I think this is important because the men had different kind of issues – and the men I talked to taken to excessive drinking and smoking.
Things will start changing on May 26, for some of them. That’s when some visa holders will be able to apply for work permits. Neha Mahajan was happy to break the news to her daughter.
MAHAJAN: So she said, “Oh can you start working now?” So I’m like yeah! President Obama has allowed it for us now [laughs].
Over 170,000 H4 visa holders are expected to apply for permission to work. But the majority will not be able to.
But Neha Mahajan is among the lucky ones because she meets the requirements: Her husband’s company is sponsoring his application for a Green Card now that’s he’s been working there for the minimum of six years. Immigration attorney Shivali Shah is critical of the new regulation. because most workers either haven’t been here long enough or don’t have sponsors and can’t apply for Green Cards.
SHAH: The number of people that will be benefiting by this law is very small compared to the number of women who need work authorization.
Neha Mahajan is excited by the prospect of a new job, but she’s a little worried about finding one.
MAHAJAN: Who’s gonna look past 7 years of no work experience really and offer me a job? They might feel I’m obsolete. (PONTAY: Do you feel obsolete?) Seven years! Of doing nothing, sitting at home, only volunteer work part time here and there…
After the first year clears out the backlog, the number of applicants for work permits is expected to stabilize at 55,000 per year.
Adélie Pontay, Columbia Radio News.