Every time she reads a news item relating to H1 or H4 visas, Neha Vyas’ heart skips a beat. The Reston, Virginia resident, who got her Employment Authorization Card last November, says she is “scared”, but harbors “a slight hope that sense will prevail.”
Vyas is refering to the motion filed by the Trump administration in an appellate court in the District of Columbia earlier this month requesting 60 days’ time to prepare their argument to withdraw the Employment Authorization Card (EAD) for spouses here on the H-4 visa.
Before May 2015, H4 visa holders – dependent spouse and children of H1B visa holders – were not allowed to seek employment in the U.S. By law, H4 visa holders were compelled to be “dependents.” In every sense of the word that is what they were – no financial independence through work, not able to open a bank account, have secure insurance coverage, a social security number, or even get a driver’s license without their spouse’s consent.
Vyas joined hundreds of others in her situation to lobby the Obama administration, and in May 2015, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Department of Homeland Security, gladdened their hearts when it made them eligible for the Employment Authorization Document (EAD), at least to a certain section of H4 dependents.
In its current form, the EAD is granted only to those H4 visa holders whose spouses’ green card applications are in an advanced stage of processing. Even with this limitation, it is anticipated that thousands of women have already benefited from the EAD, almost universally hailed as a step in the right direction recognizing the need for equal work rights for both the dependent and the primary visa holder. Not apparently in the eyes of some Republican lawmakers.
Since the passage of the EAD, immigration lawyers, activists and women have been working tirelessly to advocate the expansion of the authorization such that it can benefit all H4 visa holders. Even though this seemed an achievable dream at least until a few months ago, there is imminent danger it may be repealed by the Trump administration, which is taking several steps to counter and reduce the number of immigrants in various categories.
Scores of dependents and activists like Meghna Damani and Neha Mahajan consistently petitioned the U.S. government to pay attention to the peculiar H4 visa trap that disabled them from realizing their professional and career goals, irrespective of their qualifications or past work experiences.
In online forums like ‘H4 visa, a curse’ and ‘H-4 visa form’, and public meetings, dependents pointed out that their lives were the opposite of the American ethos that believed in allowing everyone to achieve their dreams. They shared the severity of their problems, their stories of intellectual and mental isolation, sense of loss of identity and confidence, and the financial dependence that hurt them.
According to Damani, withdrawing the EAD would be a “violation of basic human rights.” Approximately 180,000 women have been allowed to work on the EAD since 2015, Damani said.
“Imagine what these women will go through if they have to let go of a dream they fought for, for so many years,” said the New Jersey resident whose documentary “Hearts Suspended” which focused on the lives of dependent spouses, gained critical acclaim.
For some of these women, who were stuck to the confines of their homes for a long time, getting back to work and a different lifestyle was also not easy. Neha Mahajan, who went back to work last year after getting an EAD says she fears that there is a threat that she may be asked to leave. “We fought for H4 EAD for over a decade,” Mahajan said, adding that (the repealing) is “unthinkable in today’s day and age.”
Damani says she is aware that dependents do not have strong backing to get through this from influential circles. “We were lobbying for the past 10 years even in the previous landscape which was much more open than the current one,” she observes.
Damani is aware of the challenges these dependents, mostly women face, because of her indepth knowlege of the their plight, while making the very personal documentary.
“What do you except a person to do,” Damani asks. “Marriages have broken over this (H4 dependency) and there’s a lot of abuse too related to this, both physical and mental,” she points out.
Both Vyas and Mahajan firmly believe that H4 converts who are entering the job market are not there to snatch existing jobs. Vyas, an architect says it’s a misconception that Indian women entering the job market are all into IT, and gets “depressed” and “frustrated” with the comparison.
Mahajan argues that H4 jobholders contribute by establishing companies, bringing more jobs and “giving back to the community”. She cites the example of an H4 dependent who after getting an EAD started her own bakery. There are other factors too, like people buying houses, buying another car, other big consumer items, once two people are earning, she notes.
Despite the uncertainty of the situation, Mahajan is hopeful. “I am not too scared about what is going to happen,” she says, a feeling echoed by the other activists and EAD holders News India Times spoke to.