H4 visa holders could lose EAD in February: Report

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Photograph of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo.

NEW YORK – The worst fears of the H4 visa holders who have a work permit, an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) could be near at hand: a report says the Trump Administration may end the EAD for all H4 visa holders as soon as this month, forcing tens of thousands of legal immigrant workers to quit work.

A report by the McClatchy Bureau reported that ending or changing the Obama-era rule, which granted the EAD for some H4 visa holders, in 2015, could have major effects in western Wake County, where a group of 200 people – almost all women – have organized to fight against the potential change, writing letters and meeting with their members of Congress.

Abhigna Polavarapu is among them. She came to the United States on a student visa, earning her masters’ degree in bioinformatics and a doctorate in computational chemistry. Now, on a visa for spouses of highly skilled workers holding H-1B visas, she’s working as a research scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill.

She and her husband have two children, a 3-year-old girl and a 4-month old boy. Both are U.S. citizens. They live in Cary, where they own a home.

“Me not working with a PhD? I would not like to just sit at home because the visa does not permit me to work after all this effort into my education and research,” said Polavarapu, whose visa expires at the same time as her husband’s and must be renewed in May, reported McClatchy Bureau. “It will be a bad example that I cannot show them that your effort pays off at the end.”

The Obama administration implemented the rule known as H4 EAD in part to help deal with a massive backlog of H-1B visa holders from India and China waiting for green cards. Some estimates put the backlog at more than 1 million.

H-1B visa holders from India can remain in the green card queue for years. If the backlog were to remain at current levels, they could wait up to 70 years, according to members of the group. The H4 EAD allows their spouses to work while they wait for a green card. Previously they were allowed to accompany their spouse to the United States, but not to work.

The Department of Homeland Security announced plans last fall for the change, citing President Donald Trump’s “Buy American and Hire American” executive order issued in April. The order tells agencies, among other things, to “protect the interests of United States workers in the administration of our immigration system, including through the prevention of fraud or abuse.”

“The agency is considering a number of policy and regulatory changes” to carry out the executive order, said Joanne Talbot, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security, “including a thorough review of employment based visa programs. No decision about H4 visas is final until the rulemaking process is completed.”

The work authorization for a spouse is not tied to a specific employer, unlike an H-1B visa, and it must be renewed at the same time as the H-1B visa. More than 104,000 visas have been distributed to spouses in the three-plus years since the rule was changed. The rule change was first proposed in 2012, but was implemented in 2015.

Still, those workers remain a fraction of the country’s legal foreign workers. In fiscal year 2016, the last year for which complete information is available, 41,526 people were on the spouses’ visas, 3 percent of the 1.268 million foreign workers with employment authorization documents, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Vesudha Mor, a 36-year-old Cary resident, left her job and career in India to join her husband in the United States in 2010. She tried to secure an H-1B visa of her own with no luck before obtaining a spouse’s visa after the Obama administration made them available in 2015, reported McClatchy.

“It’s not about just a work permit,” she was quoted as saying. “We did a lot of financial planning.”

She and her husband have two daughters, an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old. The youngest is an American citizen. The family recently bought a second home but plans to sell one of their houses because of uncertainty over visa status. If Mor loses her ability to work, she said her family would consider moving to another country.

“We will not live here because once you expand your family, you start planning your financial things, you cannot shrink yourself in the middle. I cannot stop doing the things that I want to do for my future,” she said. “I can earn money. Why can’t I? It’s better I can go to another country.”

A group of about a dozen women met with Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, in Durham last week to lobby on behalf of the current rule. A different group met with staffers from Republican Rep. George Holding’s office in Raleigh.

“The 2015 change needs to be preserved. We want to do everything we can to head off a change in that,” said Price, citing what he said was a careful rule-making process that went into implementation. “If you’re just saying to them that they’re going to be relegated to simply staying at home no matter what the family situation is, no matter what their needs are, that’s going to make the situation for that family more difficult and for the visa holders more difficult.”

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