"There is every indication that the H4EAD may be scrapped in a matter of months, and the spouses will again lose their independence, their identity and ability to work. Even more worrying is the fact that their children may age out before the green card comes through and they may have to leave or ‘self-deport’ when they turn 21."
There are over 600,000 Indians waiting for green cards. They are in America – and yet not in America. For H1-B visa holders and their spouses who have a H4 visa, life is a permanent waiting game, waiting for the elusive green card to materialise. These spouses, most of them women, were earlier not allowed to work, have a driver’s permit, a bank account or a social security number. No matter how talented or educated they were, they could not work or bring home an income.
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Many of the spouses turned advocate as they sought to bring awareness to their plight. Rashi Bhatnagar of Atlanta, who was a journalist in India, used her skills to create @H4visaacurse, a support group. She has spent over 9 years waiting for a green card and her child is also growing up here, not knowing what the future will be She says: “Our lives are in a great jeopardy. We really want the administration to clear the green card backlog, because it is the root cause of our plight.” Her site is a sounding board for H4 families and she is an advocate who works closely to reach legislators and media.
Rashi Bhatnagar, advocate, journalist and founder of support group H4Visa A Curse.
Meghna Damani of New Jersey is another H4 spouse who had worked in advertising, filmmaking and modelling in Mumbai before coming to the Never Never Land of H4 visas in 2002. She used the caged bird syndrome to share the stories of other H4 wives with the larger world through her short autobiographical documentary ‘Hearts Suspended’. This much awarded film was used by her to create awareness in Congress, advocacy groups, and media.
Then in 2015, the Obama administration introduced the H4-EAD, which removed work restrictions for the spouses of H1-B workers. According to a study by the Migration Policy Institute, the US issued employment authorisation documents to more than 71,000 spouses of H-1B visa holders.
Change in Fortunes
Now in the age of Trump, there may be a reversal of fortunes. There is every indication that the H4EAD may be scrapped in a matter of months, and the spouses will again lose their independence, their identity and ability to work. Even more worrying is the fact that their children may age out before the green card comes through and they may have to leave or ‘self-deport’ when they turn 21.
If this two-year-old work visa is taken away by the Trump administration, it could impact more than 70,000 H-4 EAD visa holders and their families, the majority of whom are Indians and mostly women.
Meghna Damani, activist and filmmaker of ‘Hearts Suspended’ in Washington DC.
The revoking of H4EAD will have serious consequences for these women will go back to a life without a future. “The families of H-1 and H-4 holders will be hit financially as many have purchased homes trying to build a life for themselves. The impact on their domestic life and children is often overlooked with the focus on their economic and financial situation, but it is a very important aspect as being isolated and unemployed has life-long adverse effects on mental health, causing disharmony that impacts not only the family here but also the family back in India,” says Damani.
The active groups include Save H4 EAD and Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA), which have been working with US legislators to create awareness and get action. Bhatnagar believes that H4 EAD should be retained or a permanent immigration solution given by the administration: “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.”
Damani, who got an EAD in 2007, has a happier ending to her own story. She got a green card in 2010 and citizenship in 2018. She continues to create impact – she is now working on a film sequel with the working title of ‘America’s Dependent Housewives’ on the lives of H4-EADs whose destiny remains in suspense.
She says: “Unfortunately, all signs indicate the government will take action to revoke the H4-EAD. However, there will be a 3 month public comment period before the rule can come into effect. Lots of groups are working on strategies to increase the number and quality of comments which could delay the process or even make them go back and change the rule.”
The Land of Dreams
Damani saw the effectiveness of strong comments in 2014 when she worked with students from the School of Visual Arts in New York to create a public service video advocating for H4 women which went viral, and was instrumental in an unprecedented number of comments that led to the H4 EAD coming into force.
H4 visa holders protest in Washington DC.
“As a citizen, I feel even more strongly about this now because I feel the true heart of America is to really welcome immigrants and it is still the land of dreams,” she says. “I want to do my bit in making sure everyone is welcome and America is what it was intended to be. At this crucial time, I am collaborating on campaigns to mobilise public comments to prevent the H4 EAD from being revoked. We need more people to speak up and ask for their rights. We need people to publicly comment because that will be critical in deciding if this comes through or not.”
Tahmina Watson, of Watson Immigration Law in Seattle, WA, believes the H4 EAD is “low-hanging fruit” which is easy to revoke for the Trump Administration. She says, “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.”
Meeting with GA Senator Johnny Isakson’s office in Atlanta.
As Cyrus Mehta, the immigration lawyer, noted on Twitter: “This is cruel and disgraceful on the part of the Trump administration, but if there is an arbitrary denial of an H-1B extension, do not hesitate to sue the Administration in Federal Court. If 1000s sue then the Administration will be forced to back down.”
Meanwhile, H4 visa holders walk a tightrope and hope to make it to the other side.
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina.
First Published: IST