Politics & Government

Spouses of Indian tech workers find help in fight against proposed work changes

Research scientist and visa holder Abhigna Polavarapu: 'The freedom to work is a human right'

More than a dozen residents from the Wake County Indian community met with Rep. David Price on Thursday, January 25, 2017 in Chapel Hill, NC. They are fearful of a repeal of their H4-EAD visa status, that could result in job loss or deportation.
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More than a dozen residents from the Wake County Indian community met with Rep. David Price on Thursday, January 25, 2017 in Chapel Hill, NC. They are fearful of a repeal of their H4-EAD visa status, that could result in job loss or deportation.

Tens of thousands of foreign nationals living legally in the United States but facing threats to their work eligibility got a boost this week when nearly 30 percent of all U.S. House members signed on to their cause.

Led by Reps. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, and Mia Love, a Utah Republican, 130 representatives signed a letter to the Department of Homeland Security urging that the Trump administration reconsider its plans to eliminate work authorization for the spouses of H-1B visa holders.

"These spouses should be able to continue working. H-1B workers and their families are most successful when their spouses have the ability to contribute to their household income and our economy, and the freedom to use their skills and pursue their goals," the representatives wrote.

"It is an American value that everyone — regardless of gender — deserves to be able to use and enhance their skills, be financially self-sufficient, thrive mentally and physically, and pursue their dreams."

The Trump administration announced last fall that it planned to scrap a 2015 Obama-era rule that allowed the spouses of certain H-1B workers to apply for their own work visas, known as H4 EAD or employment authorization documents. The new rule was supposed to be announced in February. But that month, as part of a filing in a court case challenging the legality of the current rule, Homeland Security announced the new rule would be unveiled in June.

In April, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services confirmed it was moving ahead with its proposal in a letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the chairman of the judiciary committee. The rule change comes as part of President Trump's "Buy American, Hire American" initiative, which began with an executive order signed in April 2017.

The current rule was put in place to deal with the backlog of H-1B visa holders from India and China waiting for green cards. The wait can last decades for workers from those countries because of yearly per-country caps. H4 EAD allows their spouses to work while they wait for a green card. They had been allowed to accompany their spouse to the United States, but not to work.

As of January, more than 104,000 visas had been granted for spouses. They must be renewed.

The H-1B visa program is for highly skilled workers, many of them tech workers. H-1B visas are awarded for three years and then renewable for another three years. After that, workers can apply for permanent legal status. It is only at that point that their spouses can apply for H4 EAD status.

Groups of H4 visa holders have mobilized to fight the change, including a group of about 200 women in western Wake County.

Critics contend that American companies are abusing the H-1B visa program to hire cheaper foreign workers, and that the H4 EAD program adds even more competition for jobs, leaving American workers at a disadvantage.

"Did you see 144 members of Congress signing a letter demanding change when these American workers lost their jobs to foreign workers?" wrote attorney John Miano, who brought the legal challenge, in an email. "Neither did I. But when the spouses of their foreign replacements are losing their jobs Congress springs into action. Congress does not work for Americans or America these days."

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The congressional letter said the ability of U.S. companies to attract those workers could be impacted by any proposed rule change and it highlighted concerns about gender impact.

"The majority of H-4 spouses are women, and their inability to work widens an already existing gender inequality gap. For some, the inability to work, pursue one’s goals, or contribute to one’s family can lead to a loss of self-worth and depression, which greatly impacts the H-1B holders as well as their family members," the letter said.

North Carolina Democrats David Price, G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams signed onto the letter. South Florida Republicans Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder also signed the letter, which was sent to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth and Texas Democrat Beto O'Rourke, a Senate candidate, also signed. Sacramento-area lawmakers Doris Matsui and Ami Bera signed, too.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; @MurphinDC
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