Right to Work : Indian spouses on H4 visas rally U.S. lawmakers, Indian-Americans, to preserve work authorization gains

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Fearful of losing their hard-earned employment authorization, spouses of Indian techies in the green card pipeline, are organizing and lobbying the Trump administration and Indian-Americans

This Feb 8, more than 100 people from New Jersey, stuck in the green card backlog, including H4EAD visa holders and kids (H4 Dreamers) went to Capitol Hill to meet U.S. lawmakers and make their case. Seen here with Senator Cory Booker, D-NJ. (Photo: Courtesy Neha Mahajan/Skilled Indians In America (SIIA))

With the right to work at risk for over 90,000 spouses of H1B visa-holders, activists are stepping up their campaign to save the H4 employment authorization by lobbying lawmakers and Indian-American organizations, and by raising awareness through social Social-networking.

The clock could be ticking for their two-year reprieve after the  Department of Homeland Security announced in December that it planned to terminate the H4EAD (Employment Authorization Document) program that provided a professional, economic and social lifeline for H1B spouses and families as they waited for green cards stuck in a limbo that could be decades-long.

Following the DHS announcement activist groups composed of mostly Indian women on H4EADs, have stepped up activism and appeals against such a step. They are working  through social media and joining umbrella organizations, even roping in their children (H4 Dreamers) many of whom could be aging out in this heavily backlogged high-skilled visa stream.

The Federal Regulation entitled, “Employment Authorization for Certain H-4 Dependent Spouses,” came into existence Feb. 25, 2015. It dramatically changed the lives of many Indian spouses of H1-B visa holders.

“I literally kept my H4EAD in the my mandir the day I got it, to get blessings from God because it was of such significance,”  Neha Mahajan, now between jobs, and volunteering her time with the organization, Skilled Immigrants In America (SIIA) told News India Times. “And the first thing I did was get a Social Security Number,” Mahajan told News India Times. Then she experienced the pleasure of “going on my own and opening my own account at a bank,” after years of living in this country! The new DHS announcement is a major hurdle in her search for a new job, she said, as employers are concerned about the visa uncertainty.

 

History and Scope

Source: USCIS

Some 90,946 women and men received the H4EAD, including those asking for renewals, according to USCIS (See USCIS Table). Rashi Bhatnagar, who started a Facebook group in 2011, “H4 Visa a Curse,” estimates that 93 percent of the total are women. Her Facebook initiative garnered enough public support and blossomed into a wider movement, drawing White House and DHS attention and resulting after more than four years, in the ultimate executive action to create EAD for H4s. Today, H4 Visa a Curse, has 22, 238 followers, and is a “Closed Group” of 6,774 members, the site says. It points out that unlike other immigrant and non-immigrant visa dependents like L2, J2, family based, diversity lottery, refugee/asylum visa, the H4 visa holders are not allowed to obtain a Social Security Number without securing an EAD.

“We follow laws and rules… we are law abiding Indians, patiently waiting in more than a decade long GC queue …. We Respect America… Don’t revoke our respect… Please don’t revoke H4EAD @DHSgov @SaveH4EADs #SaveH4EAD @LIFECoreUSA,” tweeted Vasudha@Vasudhamor

SeattleSunshine‏ @tdot3454 approaches the H4EAD issue from another angle in an April 6 tweet, “saving the H4EAD not just an immigration issue but one about women”s right. Imagine thousands of well qualified women ( some who have gotten US Mater’s (sic) degrees) wasting away their life & always being financially dependent. Nothing far from mental and emotional abuse. #SaveH4EAD

Filmmaker Meghna Damani, once an H4 visa holder, who made a critically acclaimed 2014 documentary “Hearts Suspended” about thousands of women like her, is now making a movie about H4EAD visa holders, to be released this Summer or Fall, with the working title, Dependent No More. Damani told News India Times, she hopes to feature what happened to women who got EADs and then again face uncertainty.

Organizations led by Indian techies and spouses, such as Skilled Immigrants In America, (SIIA), and Immigration Voice, GCreform, numerous Twitter and Facebook groups, are grappling with getting their message across to U.S. lawmakers and Indian-American organizations.

“We believe that because of the amount of advocacy by so many groups and the push, is why they said in February that they are postponing action to June,” said Swati, who started the Swati_H4EAD, who did not want her last name used. “We have more time to rally and even they (Trump administration) have time to do the research and have data to prove their case that it negatively affects U.S. economy,” Swati added. In its response to the Justice Department in a related case brought by SaveJobsUSA against the H4EAD regulations, the government said newsindiatimes.com/anxiety-reigns-for-some-h-4-visa-holders-as-court-case-threatens-to-overturn-work-authorization/25086)

The appeals from Indian spouses and activists got a shot in the arm with a New York Times article April 6 entitled, “Thousands of Indian Women Find Their American Dreams in Jeopardy.”

Senator Tammy Duckworth, D -Illinois, responding to the New York Times article tweeted “Trump’s attack on thousands of immigrants who are here legally (and their families) & who contribute to our society every day & make our nation stronger & more competitive is devastating.”

Indian-American Response

Indian-American political activists News India Times spoke to, hope H4EAD visa holders are able to step up their game. “I don’t see H-1Bs or EADs as vocal as DACA recipients,” says Amit Jani, president of South Asians for America, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals . He hopes that with the ongoing revved up campaign, the Indian-American community (citizens) may more actively support the “legal” immigrants like H4EADs.

“We would love to help on this issue. We need a base to work with, a group or movement – to advance this agenda,” Jani told News India Times.

Mahajan, who attended the conference on India at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at her own expense, to meet “influential Indian-American community members,” to engage them, said, “They were surprised, and did not think that the 70-year wait for the Green Card is correct; and on H4EAD threat, they say, ‘oh, but that’s the law’.”

The SIIA has met more than 100 U.S. lawmakers, eliciting some positive responses. “We see a lot of misrepresentation in the media showing the level of ignorance about the issue. The general American public does not seem to differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants,” Mahajan said.

Some among the H4EAD and even H1-B visa categories expressed skepticism to News India Times about garnering the support of Indian-Americans, as even this minority from their home country, thinks American jobs are being taken ironically by Indian high-skilled workers. Some activists News India Times spoke to, accused both sides of the political divide with ignoring their plight. “Liberals support only where they see a vote,” said one. “Conservatives who opposed the green card etc., are hell-bent on opposing us, but we don’t have support from our own Indian-origin citizens here,” one complained.

However Jani said, “What brings us together on this issue is we all have family – uncles, aunts, cousins, in that situation. We, as citizens and advocates, have a responsibility to address those issues.”

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi and other Indian-American lawmakers have expressed support for H4EADs. Krishnamoorthi has written to the DHS about it said America’s competitiveness would be jeopardized against China and India, if H4 visa holders are disincentivized. Krishnamoorthi told News India Times his first priority is training Americans to fill high skilled jobs, but meanwhile high-skilled workers from elsewhere should be allowed in. “I am really pushing Bill 392,” for lifting the 7 percent country cap on immigration,” he said.

Rep. Ro Khanna, in a January Town Hall meeting in California, dwelt on the plight of H4EAD spouses, and said one of the factors that led President Obama to bring in the regulation was evidence of domestic violence when the spouse is not employed.

“Thanks to Representative Ro Khanna for supporting law abiding, tax paying, High skilled immigrant workers and their families,” Rashi Bhatnagar commented on H4 Visa a Curse. “It is the first time any lawmaker has spoken about #H4VisaSpouses domestic violence issue which is hurting our community members,” she added.

Children of H4EAD activists, also referred to sometimes as ‘H4 Dreamers’ wrote letters to U.S. lawmakers to make the case for keeping work authorization for their parents. (Photo: Neha Mahajan)

In an interview with News India Times, Bhatnagar, who is from Atlanta, Georgia, related numerous instances of how badly news about rescinding H4EAD impacted not only the health of H4EADs, but also prevented new investment in technology startups. Several of her friends are looking to migrate to Canada.

Long Haul

The silver lining is the time it will take to revoke the H4EAD federal regulation. “It will be a long procedure to do away with it. We took five years to get it created,” Bhatnagar says. And to prove the negative economic effects of H4EAD will be a challenge for the administration.

In an interview News India Times, a sobering analysis, though with some optimistic scenarios, was offered by Doug Rand, former assistant director for entrepreneurship in the Obama White House who helped implement the H4 work authorization rule, and is now the co-founder of Boundless, a technology company that helps families navigate the immigration process.

Rand says the Trump administration’s decision to revoke H4EAD has little chance of being reversed. “They’ve made their intention clear,” he says. An amendment is not on the cards. What is possible is a final rule which will allow current applicants in the stream to run their due course but end new applications.

In his best-case scenario Rand includes — the time available H4EADs could stretch till the end of this year, or early into next year, if the DHS sticks to the June deadline. That includes a public comment period which could be anywhere from 30 to 90 days, plus, the time needed to process and respond to the public comments

However, there’s a big element in favor of  H4 EAD visa holders and activists – the American legal system. Rand says stakeholders could go to court to block the new rule (just as SaveJobs USA did with the original order allowing H4EAD) on grounds of personal injury or harm. And the class could include not just the visa holders but also U.S. companies and stakeholders, Rand notes.

So H4EAD activists are looking at a long haul and possibly considerable expense if a lawsuit was to be included in the struggle.

Bhatnagar for one, is sharpening the tools for public comments, developing an “infographic” based on her survey of 10,000 H4 visa holders, “a lot of them” with Science, Technology, Engineering an Math degrees, and those who founded businesses.

Yet, federal rule-making like the EAD authorization, “is a bandaid,” activists recognize. Legislation would be a more permanent solution. There are bills in Congress that hold some promise — House Resolution 392, first introduced by Rep. Kevin Yoder and then taken up by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017”, which has 321 co-sponsors and counting; A new bill in the Senate introduced Jan. 25, by Sen. Orrin Hatch, S. 2344, Immigration Innovation Act of 2018, which is not going anywhere fast, but which immigration activists describe as a “dream bill” that not only includes removing the 7 percent country-cap on immigration, but also keeping H4 and EAD. However, mid-term election year, may put a hold on any legislative measures.