NEW YORK – The holidays are ruined for tens of thousands of immigrant families in the US. Ominous rumors, speculation and warnings from immigration experts and lawyers have finally come true: the Trump Administration has shown their hand after months of remaining stoic. They are moving forward to terminate the Employment Authorization Document (EAD), or work permit, for H-4 visa workers – given to spouses and dependents of H-1B visa workers – in 2018.
The protectionist and obnoxious move by the White House, to curb and kill the aspirations of skilled professionals who have been living in the US for years or decades on an H-4 visa, is yet another trashing of an Obama Administration rule. It’s also yet another slap in the face of skilled immigrants, who are increasingly on a slippery slope till they get a Green Card, or permanent residency.
The Trump Administration issued a notice, titled ‘Removing H-4 Dependent Spouses from the Class of Aliens Eligible for Employment Authorization’, on December 14, as part of its ‘Unified Agenda’, a bi-annual list of regulations by various federal agencies. In it, the administration plans to propose an official rule in the Federal Register by February, 2018, and thereafter all existing EADs given to H-4 visa holders will be trashed, and no new ones will be issued.
The move has been hanging in balance for more than two years now, after a group called Save Jobs USA filed a lawsuit in April 2015 arguing that EAd to H-4 visa holders threatens American jobs, and pulls down salaries. It gained momentum after Trump became president, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared the H-4 EAD rule “hurts American workers.” In February this year, the Trump Administration asked for a 60-day pause to allow the new administration to assess the case.
In issuing the statement, which is sure to see a lot of highly skilled women break into tears, go into emotional distress, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t cite any reason, saying only it was acting “in light of” the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order that Trump signed in April.
The rule to give EAD to some H-4 visa holders was met with elation by tens of thousands of mostly women, a lot of them from India, who got freedom to legally work and earn money for their family. They rejoiced, felt they finally ‘belonged’ in America; were not second-class citizens, who could become a wife and mother at their free will, but were prohibited by the government to work, unless to do voluntary service for no pay in their local community.
Indians are the largest holders of H-4 visas, comprising nearly 80% of the 125,000 issued in 2015 alone. Women account for 90% of all H-4 visas. Over 41,000 of EADs were approved in the year-ended September 2016, according to the Wall Street Journal. During the next year, more than 36,000 applications were approved, through June.
An Indian woman, Meghna Damani, who left her advertising job in Mumbai to marry and move to the US, told Quartz in an interview last year, of her excruciating ordeal on an H-4 visa with no EAD: “I could not work and I realized I did not have a sense of purpose.” She battled severe depression during this time, a manifestation of the pressure that many H-4 spouses feel after years of remaining unemployed just to be able to live with their partners, noted the report. “I wanted to just die. To no longer feel this guilt, this wastefulness. To no longer feel like a burden,” she added.
The DHS dropped another bombshell, on December 14, apart from their statement on the H-4 EAD, which is sure to make the entire H-1B community panic and agonize, as well as make Indian outsourcing companies in particular jittery about future hires: it mentioned plans for changes to the H-1B visa program. India accounts for 70% of all H-1B workers, of the 85,000 visas issued annually.
While not being explicit, DHS said they are in the process of revising the definition of what occupations are eligible for the program “to increase focus on truly obtaining the best and brightest foreign nationals.”
The H-1B visa has been roiled in controversy since the Trump Administration took over. Premium processing for H-1B visas for an additional fee was suspended; the application for computer programmers was made harder, and the Request for Evidence (REF) have gone up alarmingly, which delays or even cancels an H-1B which has been issued, putting both workers and companies in limbo.
The new declaration by DHS is far more serious: it’s likely that soon the DHS may bar all low level technology workers (read that as those who are not from reputed universities in India, or those without years of experience at a top notch overseas multinational company, and those who won’t be offered a six figure or close to six figure salary) to be barred from applying, for an H-1B visa. It could also mean that extension of H-1B visa for tens of thousands of current H-1B visa holders, could be rejected.
Next in the line of Trump’s move against legal immigration: to end the diversity visa lottery (which is fine, and it’s time to do it) and clean up the act of ‘chain migration’ – where family members can sponsor relatives, and replace it with a skills and merit-based visa system.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: email@example.com follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)