The H-4 visa is issued to the dependent family members (spouse and children) of H-1 visa holders. The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. H-4 visa holders are not authorized to be employed in the United States or get a Social Security number. They can get a driver’s license, pursue education, open bank accounts, apply for a Tax ID for IRS tax purposes, but they can’t earn an income. This has been particularly galling as, by and large, H-4 visa holders are well qualified, intelligent women who have been straitjacketed by this provision.
In her documentary Hearts Suspended (heartssuspended.com), filmmaker Meghna Damani laments, “Work became this forbidden fruit I lusted after.” She presents a brutally honest portrait of her marriage as an H-4 spouse during this bleak period. “How bad could it be?”
She wonders aloud about her impending life in America. “After all, I was going to the land of opportunity. I would take a break, and of course, I would get back and do something.”
Damani’s story is the story of many young people who leave their lives behind in India as they follow their spouses to the United States.
Neil Ruiz of the Brookings Institution says that Indian immigrants are the third-largest immigrant group in the United States. In 2012, they made up the largest proportion (64 percent) of temporary immigrants entering the U.S. on an H-1B visa for highly specialized workers.
Rashi Bhatnagar came to the United States with her engineer husband in 2009. Despite having a master’s degree from Delhi University, she has not been able to get a job or start a business. Her frustration led her to start a Facebook group, “H-4 visa, a curse.” It quickly garnered more than 11,000 members. The tweets urging the government to take action on the pending legislation flew fast and furious. One very vocal tweeter, Juhi Singh @JuhiS12 had urged President Obama, “Please release us from this cage, give us the right to work!” “Pass #H4EAD now; end this agonizing wait. No more delay.”
“Of all the provisions in President Obama’s Immigration Agenda,” says Mr. Jagannathan, an officer in Technosoftcorp, a software company in Southfield, Michigan. “The H-4 provision is the first one to be passed.” Now effective May 26, 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is extending eligibility for employment authorization to certain H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants who are seeking employment-based lawful permanent resident (LPR) status. Eligible individuals include certain H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants who: are the principal beneficiaries of an approved Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker; or have been granted H-1B status under sections 106(a) and (b) of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 as amended by the 21st Century Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act.
“Work authorization that could take even up to ten years, may now be possible to obtain in fifteen months,” Jagannathan says. Eligible H-4 dependent spouses can file Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, with supporting evidence and the required $380 fee in order to obtain employment authorization and receive a Form I-766, Employment Authorization Document (EAD). Once USCIS approves the Form I-765 and the H-4 dependent spouse receives an EAD, he or she may begin working in the United States.
A flare of victorious happiness lit up the screens in many homes on February 26th, 2015, the day the new rule was announced. “Woot! Woot!” went Ranjani Shankar. “A heartfelt thank you,” tweeted Dr. Swati Sood. “Days of liberation are finally here!!!! Thank you so so so much” tweeted Sujata @me_su. “Thank you for making us free from so called golden cage” tweeted Chinki; and “So so happy today! Just can’t believe! Thank you @Barack Obama @White House @USCIS @H4visaacurse” tweeted Cuiling Lui.
The light at the end of the tunnel is now in sight for Alka Paradkar who, on the wall of Euphoric Delight group, wrote “Sitting at home dependent on a relative stranger was quite frightening and depressing. One can feel the years slipping away and it takes a massive toll on your pride.”
Nearly 100,000 H-4 dependent spouses of certain H-1B guest workers would be eligible for work authorization in the United States under the new rule. The USICS estimates that as many as 179,600 people will be eligible to apply for work authorization in the first year, and an additional 55,000 people each annually in subsequent years. The rule also will bring U.S. immigration policies more in line with those laws of other countries that compete to attract similar highly skilled workers.
Euphoria flooded the H-4s. They held hands virtually and thrust mouth-watering recipes at each other, the hope of tasting the forbidden fruit laced their dishes of the day. Ab Delhi door nahi! (the destination is not far!)
Ritu Marwah has pursued theater, writing, marketing, startup management, raising children, coaching debate and hiking. Ritu graduated from Delhi with a master’s degree in business, joined the Tata Group and worked in London for ten years.