H-1 and H-4 Blues! and The Plight of DALCA Children
Part 1: H-1 and H-4 Blues!
by Lavina Melwani
The lives of tens of thousands of Indian immigrants will be uprooted and destroyed if the Trump administration moves ahead with its hardline proposals regarding these hard-working, tax paying, legally arrived immigrants. Here’s a look at how the proposed changes in immigration policy play out on the ground, with narratives that are poignant, and sometimes, plain desperate.
|Poornima Reddy*, an experienced data engineer, is enjoying her dream job at a Fortune 500 company. But this achievement, and the untold amount of heartache and hard work that had brought her this far, is about to be washed out, thanks to the Trump administration’s nasty campaign against immigrants, even when they are legal. The administration has set in motion the wheels to reverse the provision of EAD (Employment Authorization Document) for H-4 visa holders such as Reddy, which allows them to work in the U.S.
“If EAD is revoked, I will be jobless. I will be back to the stage where I started my journey in the U.S. nine years ago. I need to pay back my education loan and I really don't know what to do next. My life is in jeopardy. I am doomed.”
* (name changed for privacy)
|Sandeep Battula was only six years old when he came to America—it is the only country he has known. A legally arrived immigrant, who joined his legally arrived father who was on an H-1 visa, Battula’s dependent status has nevertheless been a bane of his American life. In college he couldn’t qualify for any FAFSA/Student loans or any kind of public financial support, because he was regarded as an international student despite the fact that a majority of his primary education was in the U.S.
Now, at 21, Battula is in a gloomy predicament. “If I do not find a job immediately, I have to move to India, which I do not call my home, as I have never been to India in these 15 years except for a very short visit of 15 days in 2009. The U.S. is my home, it is where I grew up, and where I plan to grow old,” he says.
The American Dream turns into a nightmare
Reddy and Battula are just two of the tens of thousands of legal immigrants on H-1 and H-4 visas whose lives are in limbo due to both the unreal backlog in the process of converting the H-1 to permanent residency, and the proposed reversal of the EAD for H-4 visa holders.
From driving on the right side of the road and understanding the nuances of baseball, prom, and American politics, thousands of Indian immigrants have, for decades, adapted to the American way of life, raising families, contributing to the economy, and becoming an integral part of local communities. For many such desis who entered America on an H-1B visa—and the hope of a Green Card—the time they have spent in the U.S. may soon come to a rude end.
As tough new immigration policies roll out, individuals and their families are in a rough place. While their existence in the U.S.—ranging from a few years to over a decade—is now precarious, there’s little for them to go back to in their native land.
As Suneeta Dewan of Dewan & Associates, PLLC, an immigration law firm in New York, points out, the Green Card can take several years to come through. She says, “Indian priority dates are so badly backlogged because there are so many Indians applying for the H-1B visa. Quotas should represent the size of the country, but they don’t. So India has the same quota as some small African nation, and the system is so clogged that Indians have to wait for years if not decades for the Green Card, and in the meantime the children age out, losing legal status.”
The H-4 Visa—living on the periphery
For years, even as the H-1B visa holder—and family breadwinner—waited for the ‘almighty’ Green Card, the spouse’s life was very different and nowhere as promising. Such spouses, typically women, led cloistered lives in America. They lived on the periphery of the American Dream with the H-4 visa, a caged bird who could not soar to new opportunities. They could not work or have a professional life in spite of having been earning professionals in their home countries. They could not have a driver’s permit, a bank account, or a social security number.
If they happened to be in a bad marriage where there was domestic abuse, they were further powerless and fearful of reporting to authorities, since they and their children were financially dependent on the working spouse. Dewan, who represents many such women on behalf of Manavi, the New Jersey-based group against domestic violence, has seen many such cases where women on H-4 visas have been abused by their husbands.
Then in 2015, during the Obama Administration, the H-4 spouses got a life-saver, a gift: the eligibility to work in the U.S. while the H-1B visa holder waited for Permanent Residency status. According to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute, the U.S. has issued employment authorization documents (EAD) to more than 71,000 spouses of H-1B visa holders, over 90 percent of whom are Indians.
The H-4 EAD—a temporary employment authorization—was a game changer for many H-4 spouses, allowing them to drive a car, fulfil professional ambitions, and have an independent life. These families have been able to plan for the future, buy a home, and have expanded dreams based on two incomes, all the while contributing to the local economy.
American lives, interrupted
And now just as suddenly, the Trump administration is all set to strike harsh notes in this happy interlude. The administration may take away the right to work, now in force for two years. If the H-4 EAD visa is rescinded, it could impact more than 70,000 H-4 EAD visa holders and their families, the majority of whom are Indians and mostly women.
“Our plans include proposing regulatory changes to remove H-4 dependent spouses from the class of aliens eligible for employment authorization, thereby reversing the 2015 final rule that granted such eligibility,” wrote U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Francis Cissna in a letter to Senator Chuck Grassley, quoted in BloombergQuint.
And so, now, the spouses of H-1B visa holders are once again in a bind, their lives again upturned as they wait for the other shoe to drop. Can the lack of a piece of paper diminish, suffocate, and etch life in black and white? It can and it does when it is the H-4 EAD.
What is it like for the ordinary folks whose lives have been snagged by this abrupt and dramatic policy change? Here are some stories of what’s happening on the ground.
Rashi Bhatnagar (right) is not giving up without a fight. To create awareness of the problems facing H-4 visa families, she has turned to advocacy and has launched a Facebook support page.
H-4 Visa Holders Fight Back
For Atlanta-based Rashi Bhatnagar, a journalist who came to the U.S. from India with her husband on an H-1B visa, the news of the possible revocation has turned her life upside down. In spite of living in the U.S. for nine years, the precious Green Card has yet to materialize. She says, “As per the calculations, the Green Card might take 70 years to arrive. Our lives are in great jeopardy. We really want the administration to clear the Green Card backlog, because it is the root cause of our plight.”
She believes that revoking EAD will definitely destroy the lives of many H-4 visa holders. The H-4 EAD Rule should be retained or a permanent immigration solution should be given by the Administration. Bhatnagar suggests, “They could give unused visa numbers to clear the Green Card backlog, remove the dependents from the Green Card line, or give an early adjustment of status."
Bhatnagar is not giving up without a fight. To create awareness of the problems facing H-4 visa families, she has turned to advocacy and has launched a Facebook support page (https://www.facebook.com/H-4visaacurse/) that portrays the multiple problems of H-4 spouses.
For instance, there’s the issue of non-U.S. born, “aging out” kids who are stuck on a dependent visa. The clock is ticking and as they wait for Green Cards to come through, many of the waiting children are turning into adults. Once they are 21, they can no longer be a part of the family Green Card application and will be sent back to their original home in India, which they may not even remember.
Rashi Bhatnagar is not alone. Many spouses on H-4 visas have turned advocate as they seek to bring awareness to their plight. Active groups include Save H-4 EAD and Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA) which have been working with U.S. legislators to bring attention to their situation and get action. As the SIIA site notes, these immigrants contribute billions of dollars into the U.S. economy through local and federal taxes by buying local products and services and yet cannot change jobs or start businesses, resulting in ‘indentured servitude.’
The SIIA GA team recently met with officials from the offices of Georgia Senators Johnny Jackson and David Perdue in Washington, D.C. The group was also part of a 500-strong gathering of skilled immigrants in D.C. who met with legislators.
For this Big Data engineer, the future is bleak
Poornima Reddy* (name changed for privacy), a merit student, grew up in Hyderabad. In 2003, her superior technical skills landed her a job in a software company where she was awarded thrice for her contributions over a 5-year period.
Marriage and her husband’s posting brought her to the U.S. in 2009. Her successful career as a software engineer was left behind. “Being on an H-4 visa with no permit to work, I couldn't use my previous experience to get a job. I lost my freedom, felt very discouraged—it was the toughest phase of my life,” she recalls. “I couldn't take this anymore, hence [I] decided to do a Master’s. Trust me, it was not an easy decision with the responsibility of taking care of a 1-year-old baby. I used to sleep at 1 am and get up at 4:30 in the morning so that I could get some time to prepare for my exams.”
With continuous hard work and dedication, she managed to get good scores in GRE and TOEFL, and received her Master’s degree from the University of Texas, Dallas, majoring in Data Science. She says, “The road was not smooth. Yet I worked hard for two years to graduate as an honor student. During this time the EAD rule came into reality. I didn't apply for OPT (Optional Practical Training) as I had faith in the U.S. government that once a rule is made through proper procedure, it will [remain so].”
From 2017, after her graduation, after almost eight years of constant hard work, she started working as a Big Data Engineer with a Fortune 500 company. For a data engineer, this is a dream job. Now, this dream may be receding for Poornima.
She says, “With the new proposal to revoke H-4 EAD, it is difficult to digest that this is happening. All my struggles and the sacrifices of time not spent with my child, energy, everything will be wasted. If I had made the same effort in a country where these kinds of regulations are not imposed on dependents, my life would have been in a better position.”
The future looks bleak since Poornima did not choose to file for OPT before graduating—that opportunity is now lost. She voices the fears which inhabit her waking hours: “If EAD is revoked, I will be jobless. I will be back to the stage where I started my journey in the U.S. nine years ago. I need to pay back my education loan and I really don't know what to do next. My life is in jeopardy. I am doomed.”
“I’m really not here to make millions of dollars. I just want my identity as a dad and as an individual, have the family together, and live peacefully. Now if they reverse the EAD rule, it will shatter all our dreams. Our family has nowhere else to go,” says Raj Karne, seen here with his family.
The breadwinner who couldn’t win bread
With the Karne family who live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, there’s a role reversal. While his wife received an H-1B visa in July 2011, he came to the U.S. on a dependent visa.
“We were newly married then and both did not know the restrictions of the H-4 visa,” he says. Karne has a Master’s degree and had worked with human resource departments in firms in India, but as an H-4 spouse he could not work at all. “I became a stay home husband and that took a toll on my personal life due to [the] daily frustration of not being able to work,” he recalls. “I had to even sell property in India so we could get through our daily expenses. We couldn't manage just with my wife's salary because she had her educational loans, since she did her Master’s degree here in the U.S. She also had to continue supporting her family.”
That was a bad phase of life, recalls Karne. For four and a half years, he had no work permit and so could not seek employment. He yearned for what men take for granted—the right to work. He wanted a simple life, he says, with simple dreams—the right to earn and to support his family again: “I’m really not here to make millions of dollars. I just want my identity as a dad and as an individual, have the family together, and live peacefully.”
His prayers were answered with the approval of EAD in 2015 under the Obama administration. Since he lacked prior work experience here in the U.S., he had to start his career all over again. He began with a basic administrative assistant position which required only a high school degree, even though he had graduated with a Master’s. He says, “I'm very happy with this small income job and I do not want anything else. I just want to keep working for my family, to have a basic life. With sheer determination, I have committed to the work I have been offered. Now if they reverse the EAD rule, it will shatter all our dreams. Our family has nowhere else to go.”
As he points out, Minnesota is home and all their friends are here. Now in their mid-30s, he feels it would be really difficult to go back to India and start life again: “We have sold the property in India, so we have nothing to go back to. It is an [inexplicable] frustration to think about losing my job and becoming a stay-home dad again. It's a feeling of being handicapped and dependent on my wife again. I have lived life with dignity the past three years as I was able to contribute to my family expenses and paid taxes like any legal immigrant should do.”
Karne has not seen his parents for seven years. He says, “I tried bringing them here for just a month but their visa application was rejected three different times because I'm not working here and my wife's income is insufficient for supporting them.”
Sandeep Battula was only six years old when he came to America—it is the only country he has known. He was born in Visakhapatnam, India on November 20, 1996 and came with his mother and sister to join his father, Venu Battula, who was in the U.S. on an H-1 visa. Fifteen years later, the family is still waiting for their Green Card which is bogged down in backlogs due to the per country quota limits.
In the intervening years, Sandeep has grown into a young adult.
“We settled in Seville, OH, a small town 40 miles south west of Cleveland. I started school in second grade at Seville Elementary School,” he says. “We lived there until we moved to Columbus in 2007, and we have been living there since then. My father’s employer has applied for a Permanent Residency on his behalf in May 2008 and it has been in the backlog since then. Since my dad is stuck with an H-1 status, the rest of us are stuck with an H-4 status, which comes with many limitations. This didn’t manifest till the end of high school. Once I started applying to colleges, I noticed difficulties [in] applying due to my status.”
Sandeep has now graduated from Ohio State University with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science & Engineering. He is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Computer Science at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. Even if his father’s Green Card comes through, the job market will also be closed to him because he has aged out.
It is a story of learning to downsize, to dream small, to dream cautious.
“I wanted to study Aerospace Engineering, as I had dreamed of working at NASA in one of its research programs,” says Sandeep. “My family discouraged me as I wouldn't be eligible for those jobs due to my lack of citizenship. I ended up compromising with Computer Science. Other difficulties included applying as an international student even though I did my education here. The enrollment qualifications for international students are more difficult than those of residents. I didn't qualify for any FAFSA/Student loans or any kind of public financial support. I had to submit a lot of documentation to get in-state status every semester. Otherwise, I would need to pay international tuition fees.”
Sandeep was not eligible for any employment due to his H-4 visa status and so lost out on the promise of financial independence: “I had to depend on my dad to pay for every penny of my college fees, and other expenses. All my other American friends were working, earning valuable life experience, while I was just limited to school and home.”
Ahead lies a major roadblock. On his 21st birthday, Sandeep cannot be considered a dependent anymore. He has petitioned for a change of status so he can have an F-1 visa. He says, “This means I cannot get a Green Card when my dad gets his Green Card as I am not his dependent anymore. Additionally, once I complete my Master’s program, I immediately need to find a job with an employer who can file an H-1 visa for me, which is very difficult given the current times.”
“Worse yet, if I do not find a job immediately, I have to move to India, which I do not call my home, as I have never been to India in these 15 years except for a very short visit of 15 days in 2009. The U.S. is my home, it is where I grew up, and where I plan to grow old.”
Thousands more, waiting and watching
As H-1 B visa holders and their H-4 spouses and children wait to hear about their future, their lives are full of anxiety and stress. As one mother, Chandrima, wrote to the support group, looking for some kernel of hope, “My daughter is 18 and she is in college here in USA. We came here when she was eight years old. She is in H-4 visa. When she talked to her college about changing her status to F-1 before the age of 21, they said it will not be possible as we already have applied for a Green Card, and I-140 is approved and she is in the queue. It is frustrating and depressing as she is a good student but this kind of uncertainty is making her anxious and worried about her future.”
Skilled Indians met with legislators in February 2018 to address the Green Card backlog.
Meanwhile, the H-4 visa holders have presented their concerns to senators and lawmakers and tried to highlight their plight through the media. It is a battle which will have to be won by raising voices, raising awareness.
Recently Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Mia Love (R-UT) led 130 bipartisan members of Congress in urging Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary, Department of Homeland Security, to maintain the current regulation granting work authorization to certain H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrant workers. In a joint letter signed by 130 legislators, they wrote, “The opportunity for H-4 visa holders to work has made our economy stronger, while providing relief and economic support to thousands of spouses—mostly women—who have resided in the United States. Many are on the path to permanent residency, and would already be permanent residents if not for the decades-long employment backlogs. Rescinding the rule will hurt the competitiveness of U.S. employers and the U.S. economy, as well as H-4 accompanying spouses and their families. We strongly urge you to reconsider this action.”
Given the opportunity—and authorization—to work, a whole new world opens up for family members on dependent visas. Shikha Dalmia came during an earlier period when the wait for Green Cards was just about four years. Her stay home period was short and she was soon able to use her expertise. Rather than being forcibly unemployed and wasting her talents, she is today a Senior Writer at Reason and a columnist at The Week. As she wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times, “I remember feeling an exhilarating world of opportunities open up before me when I got my Green Card. It is sad—and senseless—that President Trump is so determined to prevent others like me from experiencing the full promise of America and participating fully in American life.”
DALCA (Deferred Action for Legal Childhood Arrivals) children making their voices heard at the Capitol.
Meanwhile, it’s a waiting game. “I think the government’s intention is to revoke it or rescind it. It’s a low-hanging fruit for them. There’s every indication that Homeland Security and the USCIS are determined to rescind the H-4 EAD Rule,” says Tahmina Watson of Watson Immigration Law, an immigration attorney in Seattle, WA. The rule does go through a process where there are 30-60 days for the public to comment. In a general rule making process, the government will take all the comments into consideration and then make the final rule. It’s difficult to know whether this will now be adhered to and how it will all end.
“In this climate, in this Administration, I don’t know if any bill will pass,” says Watson. “The moment you have immigration attached to it, there’s no bill that will actually pass. Often the H-4 community is pitted against the DACA community. If there’s not enough compassion and collaboration in Congress to pass the Dream Act, no other bill will ever pass because that’s the most urgent and poignant topic in this country. When it comes to a bill about skilled immigrants, it’s very difficult to see how and when that will pass. That’s why advocacy is very important and groups should continue to do what they can. Relying on a bill to pass will not be the answer to this problem, unfortunately. We essentially have to continue to take action and put pressure on elected officials and continue to litigate.”
Real life stories from H-4 Spouses
(These comments are from H-4 spouses on Rashi Bhatnagar’s blog,"‘H-4 Visa—A Curse")
Constrained by a Visa
Medicos Who Cannot Practice
Loss of Independence
Immigrant Engineers Power American Industry Giants, Why Lose Them?
Part 2: The Plight of DALCA Children
by Vikram Aditya Kumar
You’ve heard of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But what about DALCA, or Deferred Action for Legal Childhood Arrivals? The distinction is that the DACA pathway to citizenship only applies to children who were brought here illegally. For many Indian-Americans, the DALCA voice is being ignored. The absence of any congressional or media discussion on the issue is a sad scenario, leading to a brain drain in the U.S., notes VIKRAM ADITYA KUMAR.
This is arguably the most prosperous time in history to be an American. Alternatively it is a particularly precarious time to be a child of immigrant parents in America, especially if your parents came here legally. That’s right, I said “legally.”
“I wish I were an illegally arrived child instead of a legal one.” As a stand-alone statement those words are perplexing, but in present context it serves as the mantra of 200,000 Indian-American children who were brought here legally by their parents on H-1B or other work visas. Those children now face the real threat of self-deportation once they turn 21 years old due to the end of their H-4 dependent status and a seemingly endless backlog of green card dissemination.
I was lucky enough to have been born in this country in the early ’80s to parents who came here from India in the late ’60s on student visas and who subsequently got their American citizenship. Compared to Indian immigrants today, my family and I are generationally lucky. The young people who are losing their legal status are no different than my siblings and I were. These kids have been raised on Dorito’s, PlayStation, and Coke just like we were and now they’re being forced to leave—which benefits “Silicon Vancouver” and beyond. Each high-skilled worker who is forced to move is a loss for the U.S. and our future as a competitive tech country. Nearly a dozen Indian families in my friend circle alone have shipped off to Vancouver.
Prior to the new millennium it would only take six months to get a green card. Now the wait is up to 60-70 years. Many H-1B holders will die before they get a green card. And they will continue to live a life of uncertainty and deep anxiety, afraid to go back to India to even attend the funeral of their parents for fear of being not allowed back even though they have a legal status.
There has been zero debate of the DALCA issue in either the House or Senate and the only real mentions of it anywhere are in India-based periodicals since it affects Indian-Americans more than any other minority (70 percent of EB visas have been awarded to Indian-Americans in the past decade). Congress needs to address this problem and include the DALCA Dreamers in whatever compassionate fix they intend to bestow upon the DACA Dreamers. We cannot let this talent spill out of our country, which will in turn deter continued growth and prosperity. And Congress must fix the root-cause of the DALCA problem: the 60-70-year backlog of high-skilled immigrants from India.
To me, this is an easy DALCA fix: simply adjust the White House policy on DACA by including the word “legal” in its immigration framework.
DACA LEGALIZATION, according to the current framework: “Provide legal status for DACA recipients and other DACA-eligible illegal immigrants, adjusting the time-frame to encompass a total population of approximately 1.8 million individuals.”
I commend Sen. Rand Paul for having the courage to call out Congress on its hypocrisy on this issue. I also urge President Trump to fix this for the betterment of the country so that we can continue our contributions of creating jobs and making this country greater for generations to come. As the Kentucky senator said,
“[W]hen H-1B visa holders from certain countries are forced to wait decades to receive a green card, the children of those H-1B holders can fall out of legal status and would not be covered by either DACA or the DREAM Act. Those children who came in legally through no fault of anyone will suddenly be faced with the choice of remaining illegally in the United States or leaving the only country they have even known as home ... a group that includes some of the most talented young students in America’s schools today.”
And here is former Speaker Newt Gingrich on the same subject:
“As lawmakers work on this solution, they must keep in mind how senseless, unfair, and hypocritical it would be to provide a fix for DACA Dreamers—who came here illegally— and neglect to provide a solution for the DALCA Dreamers who have followed the rules and are being victimized by our backlogged, broken system.”
Vikram Aditya Kumar is president and CEO of AVG and chairman of Republican Hindu Coalition. A slightly different version of this article appeared in Real Clear Politics.
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