As we fight for the protection of Dreamers, we see their stories in the headlines every day. We see videos of tearful farewells and read articles about young people living in terrified limbo, with more than 100 losing their protection from deportation each day in the count down to the ultimate cut-off date in March. As the Trump administration continues its policies of exclusion and restriction, more and more vulnerable immigrants are being affected. Less visible, but equally vulnerable, are populations of legal immigrants whose lives are being turned upside down by harsh new policies.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) data, more than 100,000 spouses of H-1B workers have filed for a work permit through regulations instituted under the Obama administration in 2015. Work authorization was provided to this population, to help families whose long-delayed lawful permanent residence applications were still wending their way through the system. In many cases, these spouses, usually women, interrupted their careers to join their families in the U.S. on an “H-4 visa,” a visa that permits legal presence, but not employment.
Because there are annual limits on the number of green cards that can be issued to nationals of any individual country, and because so many employers need the skills of talented Indian professionals to compete and thrive in our global economy, there is a disproportionally long line for Indian families to receive green cards. The “line” takes literally a decade or longer for most of these families. Before President Obama created the H-4 employment authorization rules in 2015, H-4 spouses were trapped. Many volunteered extensively in order to share their talents with their community, but as one H-4 spouse said, she still felt like a “hostage” by her status and her inability to pursue her career independently.
The Trump administration has made it clear that the H-4 work permit is on the chopping block. Initially, it did so by refusing to defend, through delay tactics, a lawsuit challenging the legality of the rules, and then more explicitly in the administration’s regulatory agenda, which includes plans to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking to eliminate H-4 spouses from the list of individuals authorized for employment. With this news, calls from H-4 clients rolled in, and in response, we quickly filed extensions of work permits, and are altering strategies and timelines for filing H-1B extensions to hopefully extend H-4 work permits before we no longer have the option. One H-4 spouse, employed at a hospital, is terrified that her work permit won’t be extended beyond its current August expiration date, while another is planning to drop out of her graduate degree program because she may not have the ability to work for the next decade if without her H-4 work permit. This is senseless waste of talent that will ultimately damage businesses, communities, and our entire economy.
While H-1B workers are of course issued to women, data from the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics shows an approximately 3-to-1 ratio of men to women in the H-1B category. From this data, we can assume that the majority of H-4 spouses are women who will once again be shut out of the workforce in the prime of their careers if the H-4 work authorization rules are eliminated. These women will in many cases be forced to veer from their chosen career paths to the permanent detriment of their ability to succeed and earn to their full potential.
The fact that the administration is about to tear away work authorization for H-4 spouses should be ringing feminist alarm bells. Unfortunately, the din of alarm bells going off each day with the latest immigration or women’s rights crisis, sometimes drowns out these more technical and quieter injustices. In addition to the professional sacrifices these women have made, studies have also demonstrated that prohibiting H-4 wives to work has created power imbalances that limit rights spanning beyond professional attainment. It is in this sense that H-4 employment authorization is a feminist issue.
If Congress can’t agree on eliminating the mechanisms that create decade-long delays in green cards, the very least it can do is provide a path for H-4 spouses to fully participate in and contribute to their communities.
To quote a phrase by the immigration scholar Hiroshi Motomura, H-4 spouses are “Americans in Waiting.” They are in a long but steady line towards permanent residence and eventual U.S. citizenship. To hobble the professional opportunities for these Americans in Waiting while they wait in that long line is utterly counterproductive and inhumane.