“I have applied for an H4 extension and EAD, my case was received on May 2nd, 2020 at Texas center, nothing has been approved except my spouse’s H1B. My biometric is not done yet, I’m not sure of the wait time. I lost my job waiting for my renewal to come by!”- Anonymous H4EAD holder.
This is not just one story, there are thousands of others. H4-visa holders, spouses of the coveted H1B visa holders, have been dealing with the uncertainty around the renewal of their work authorization since March of 2019. At that time, the requirement of biometric was added for these long-term visa holders. This has caused chaos in their lives, forcing them to resign from their jobs, lose their driver’s licenses, and lead lives of solitude. But why is it such a big issue?
The H1-B visa has been a dual intent visa since the implementation of Immigration Act of 1990. Although the visa itself is valid for three years and extendable up to six years, there is an exception; those visa holders with an approved 1-140 immigrant petition or a labor certification before their visa expires. After the approval of I-140, eternal wait starts for those born in highly populated countries like India and China. As per some estimates for those visa holders born in India, the wait time to get their Green Cards in hand is about 150 years long. Now one may have complete faith in advancement of medical science; they will be able to bring people back from the dead, no pun intended.
What happens to the families of H1-B visa holders?
How the administration wishes the visa holders would remain unmarried their entire lives. Unfortunately, that is not how society works. The H4-visa holding spouse and child depend on the H1-B visa holder. Until 2015, the H-4 spouse wasn’t even allowed to get a SSN, and in many states, even a driver’s license as a result of these archaic laws. Immigration reforms haven’t changed since 1990, whereas the world has advanced to a more inclusive global economy. H-4 visa holders were completely dependent on their H1-B visa holder for necessities such as food, water and shelter, despite paying taxes and living documented in the United States of America for years. Almost 93% of these H4-visa holder spouses are women, who are equally, or more, talented than the spouse. Had the immigration system been fair, they would currently be contributing members of the society.
In 2015, the Obama administration brought what is called an H4-EAD or work authorization for those spouses of H1-B workers who’ve either lived in the United States for 6 years or have an approved I-140 petition. It was a welcome change but also a band-aid fix. No one thought that these spouses were already approved for Green Cards and waiting in line, not sure when the dates for their approved immigrant petitions would become Green Cards. Currently, only about 100,000 H4-visa holders have got their work authorizations. Under the Trump administration the H4EAD was put in danger and these skilled workers went from ‘Americans in Waiting’ to ‘Job Stealers’.
Where’s the problem?
Thank you for reading until now, I hope I didn’t lose you because it is a complex issue. The Trump administration did everything they could to stop these 100,000 H4-EAD holders from getting their work authorizations. They tried to rescind but the Office of Management and Budgeting wasn’t convinced. Is the American economy threatened by a few 100,000 folks, mostly women who were forced to stay out of work for years together? Doesn’t sound right. What’s even more important to understand is that the H4- EAD is a non-restrictive work authorization, so one can really dream big. They could open a restaurant, a dentist’s office, a pharmacy, even a clinical research firm. The possibilities are endless and only help the American economy grow.
Now because the Trump administration couldn’t prove their rhetoric of H4- EAD as job stealers who hurt the American economy, they implemented a requirement called the biometric at every renewal of the H4-visa and work authorization. This is a major problem for many reasons. Firstly, H4-EAD holders have lived in this country long enough, with their biometric on file. The biometrics don’t change at all unlike the visa which is renewed every one to three years. A renewal can only be applied for only six months in advance. The biometric requirement has caused unnecessary delays in getting visa renewals and work authorizations. What should ideally take about 3 and a half months is now taking two years, forcing those on H4-EAD to lose their jobs. Prior to March 2019 when biometric was issued, H4-visa and H4-EAD were renewed along with original H1-B renewal. Without an approved H4 petition the DMV wouldn’t renew their license, state identification card also automatically expires. While in wait H4-visa holders cannot leave the country either.
The only way USCIS would even respond is through litigation. Imagine having to file a litigation every time you want your driver’s license renewed, only you’d also lose your job. The whole essence of providing work authorization to H4 dependent spouse is lost. Thousands who started their own business must shut down because now they can’t continue without the EAD. This also means those employed by these H4-EAD spouses also lose their job.
The policy is cruel, racist and targeted against Indians who are stuck in a Green Card limbo along with their families and kids.
All this trouble could be saved if the immigration system would give Green Cards fairly and within a reasonable timeframe to those approved. Sadly, the arbitrary 7% per country caps make the system highly unfair. After all, the H1-B visa is granted to people based on their skills, not because of their country of birth. To the system, we are all numbers. It doesn’t see 1 million people suffering in a seemingly endless line, waiting for their Green cards.
Knocking on doors at the Hill
For the past decade, Skilled Immigrants in America, a non-profit, has been knocking every door at the Capitol to raise awareness for the Green Card Backlog through multiple advocacy events. Each representative, who has held office, has called immigration reform for the skilled immigrant community a low hanging fruit; easy to achieve. Bills such as S.386 which aimed at ending the Green Card backlog are not even brought to the floor for final discussion.
Even our own community doesn’t show interest in helping resolve these issues or offer support. Everyone has gone through their fair share of immigration struggles, but many believe in closing doors behind them instead of helping those going through what they had once. It has only become more complex as time has passed. Organizations that are working to bring South Asian Americans together are busy sending letters to members of Congress, asking them to not change rules to end the backlog. They believe the system would be unfair to others. However, they are okay with an unfair system. It is high time we all unite to work towards a positive immigration reform, instead of against each other.
The Biden administration has acknowledged the issue of the Green Card backlog and has shown an intent to resolve the issue. They have recently terminated the rescind of H4-EAD. This is a breath of fresh air, a sigh of relief for many. However, the situation remains the same for H4-EAD holders stuck in the Green Card backlog. These visa holders don’t know if by the time they get their work authorization, it will be time to renew it again, just like a hamster running in a wheel.
New Jersey Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman and 59 other members of the US House of Representatives urged President Joe Biden in a letter sent on December 16 to unilaterally extend expiration of work authorization documents for H-4 visa holders. The requirement of biometric for renewing work authorizations in the middle of a pandemic seems an unnecessary burden to those stuck in a two-century long backlog.
I really hope the Biden administration will bring an immigration reform and fairness to the system where those who have been waiting for Green Cards longer have issued them first, instead of those born in other countries being able to cut the line. It’s the right thing to do. I hope they include some reform for H4 spouses and kids in the Dream Act. Why leave them behind?
The changes made by the Trump administration to policies and forms are so minute they may go unnoticed to the new administration, while those who depend on these work authorizations lose their jobs, chances at contributing to the American economy, chances at being role models to their kids, the chance for sanity in their lives. They were promised a land of opportunities with liberty and justice for all.
Neha Mahajan is the vice president of Skilled Immigrants in America