Come Monday, the Trump administration may quietly revoke the ability of hundreds of thousands of immigrants – almost all women – to legally work in the United States, forcing them to choose between heading back to their kitchens or leaving the country altogether.
They are the spouses of workers here on high-skilled visas, and are typically high-skilled themselves. Many have launched businesses that created jobs for U.S. citizens, whose employment may in turn be at risk, too.
Take, for instance, 37-year-old entrepreneur Keerthi Ranjith, who lives in South Riding, Va.
Ranjith came to the United States in 2004 as the dependent spouse of her husband, a software engineer on an H-1B visa. Ranjith, a teacher, knew that one condition of leaving India was that she would, at least temporarily, have to give up her rewarding career; at the time, spouses of H-1B workers were prohibited from doing paid work.
Still, her husband’s company promised to sponsor him for a green card, which meant that in a few years both of them would again be able to work. She could put her professional skills to use and bring in a second income for their growing family.
At least, that’s what she thought. The couple hadn’t counted on the interminable green-card backlog for Indian nationals.
Under current law, there’s an annual per-country cap on green cards, and it’s the same number for every country regardless of population. That means people from tiny nations such as Lichtenstein can get green cards almost immediately after clearing the sponsorship and screening process, while those from countries such as India and China may wait decades.
Ranjith waited and waited. Restless at home but barred from getting a job, she volunteered at her children’s school and began dreaming about one day launching her own business: an after-school tutoring center. She had her Indian educational credentials transferred and obtained a Virginia teaching license. She researched books and curriculums and scoped out locations.
Years passed, and members of Congress several times tried and failed to fix the broken green-card system. (Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., played a pivotal role in scuttling one effort.) Finally, the Obama administration offered a workaround: Starting in May 2015, the administration announced, spouses of skilled workers awaiting green card approval would be allowed to work.
And so, after 11 years more or less on the sidelines, Ranjith was granted authorization to get a job – or, in her case, to start a business.
She moved fast. Within a month, she opened the South Riding Learning Center. Today nearly 250 students are enrolled, and she employs more than 15 people.
“All my employees,” Ranjith is quick to note, “are citizens, of course. They were all born here.”
Now, under President Trump in the White House and Sessions at the Justice Department, Ranjith and her 15 American employees may all lose their jobs.
As a senator, in addition to opposing green-card reform, Sessions vehemently objected to the rule that allowed Ranjith to open her business. Now he has a quick and easy way to eliminate her work authorization: He could stop defending it in court.
A lawsuit challenging the rule was filed in 2015 and recently landed in federal appeals court. The Trump administration asked for a 60-day pause to “allow incoming leadership personnel adequate time to consider the issues.”
On Monday, those 60 days will be up.
The Justice Department, representing the Department of Homeland Security, hasn’t tipped its hand, but Sessions’ past statements bode ill for people such as Ranjith. A settlement with the plaintiffs would effectively allow Sessions to kill the rule without going through the long regulatory process normally required for repeal. (The advocacy group Immigration Voice asked to join the case on grounds that the government may not be adequately representing the interests of its members; the judge, perhaps waiting to see what the government will do, has not yet ruled on its request.)
Ranjith is not sure what she’ll do if her work authorization is revoked, which would mean she could no longer run the business she started – and sank her family’s savings into. If she couldn’t sell it, she might have to file for bankruptcy. The financial loss could be so crushing that her family – including her two U.S.-born children – could decide to leave.
“I have waited patiently, I paid taxes, I volunteered, I waited for the rules to change, and I did everything correctly,” she said. “But maybe this means we need to start over.”
So tell me: Just how would it make America great again to drive away hard-working job-creators like Keerthi Ranjith?
Washington Post Writers Group