Spouses fight for the right to work

Kate Morrissey
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO – Spouses of foreign workers are taking a stand against the Trump administration’s plans to take away their work permits.

H-1B workers’ spouses come on H-4 visas. Those are dependent visas, meaning the spouses are not allowed to have jobs in the U.S. Because many get stuck for over a decade on these temporary visas while they wait for the H-1B holders to become permanent residents, the Obama administration allowed H-4 visa holders who are waiting in long lines for green cards to work while they wait.

The Trump administration, citing the president’s “Buy American, Hire American” agenda, announced in the fall of 2017 that it was planning to revoke that permission.

“We’re a group of people who want to save our jobs,” said Jansi Kumar, who helps organize a group of H-4 work permit holders called Save H4EAD. “It’s a little crazy when you wake up one morning and you don’t know whether you’ll be allowed to work or not.”

Because of annual caps on how many visas can go to citizens of one country, people from places like India and China, where many immigrant workers come from, have especially long waits for green cards.

If an employer decides to sponsor a green card for an H-1B employee from India, it can take well over a decade. The people at the front of the line from India for one class of employment visa have been waiting since December 2008, according to the State Department. For another class of visa, they’ve been waiting since December 2006.

Obama-era rule: In 2015, the Obama administration put in place a rule that allows spouses of H-1B visa holders to get a work permit after the H-1B visa holder has been accepted into the waiting line for a green card.

The issue mostly affects women, Kumar said.

The government agency that issues visas has approved close to 105,000 work permits for H-4 visa holders since 2015, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That’s just under 3 percent of the close to 4 million work permits issued by the agency in the same time frame.

Kumar’s group did a survey of its members and found that 96 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 59 percent have more advanced degrees.

Many of the women who come to the U.S. on H-4 visas pursue additional degrees while they’re not allowed to work, she said.

Priyanka Ursal, who came to San Diego in 2010 to live with her husband, said after one year of not working, she ended up applying for a master’s program in information system management to have something to do.

“Before that, I had never sat home doing nothing a single day,” Ursal said. “It was a hard thing to digest.”

Originally from Pune, a city near Mumbai in India, Ursal grew up watching her mother work full time while raising her family. Ursal had similar expectations for herself before an arranged marriage, which are common in India, brought her to the U.S.

She said that first year in San Diego was painful because she couldn’t work.

“There was some guilt in my mind. Am I wasting my time?” she recalled. “I have got a very nice education from a very good school, and I wanted to pursue my career.”

After she finished her master’s degree, she found a company willing to sponsor her for an H-1B visa.

Her first day back at work was the best day of her life, she said.

“I was so happy, like I could scream to everyone that I am back to life,” Ursal said.

When her son was born, she decided to spend some time at home and relinquished her work visa.

At that point, the Obama administration had created the work permit for H-4 visa holders. Since her husband had been in line for a green card since 2011, she knew she’d be able to return to work when she was ready.

She found a job working as a senior test engineer at a startup. She and her husband are saving to buy a house.

She wants to set an example for her son as a working mother, and the job helps her pay for his day care.

“This job does not just mean money for me, but it is also my identity, my pride and my self-esteem,” Ursal said.

She hasn’t talked to her co-workers about her situation because she’s waiting to see the Trump administration’s final rule.

The proposed rule was supposed to be published to the federal register in February. The administration recently announced that it will now wait until June.

Fears for the future: Sangeeta Degalmadikar, who came to the U.S. with her husband in 2008, has her own fashion design company that she started last year.

She’s worried about what will happen to her business, and to her employee, if she loses her work permit.

“It was my dream to have my business and to achieve something,” Degalmadikar said. “In India, I was a professional. After coming here, everything for me was blank.”

She had plans to expand to an online store and possibly a storefront, but she’s decided to hold off. She encouraged her employee to drop to part time with her and find other work to protect the employee from unemployment if Degalmadikar no longer has a way to run the business legally.

Sheetal Bangalore Srikumar, who lives in Poway, said that the uncertainty she’s facing while waiting for the administration’s decision has made it difficult to plan her family’s future.

An engineer, she came to the U.S. in 2008 first on a student visa for a master’s degree and then found a company to sponsor an H-1B visa for her.

Her husband was working in San Diego when they married. They couldn’t find two H-1B sponsored jobs in the same city, so their lives involved many long commutes and a lot of time in separate cities.

In 2013, they got in the waiting line for green cards. When the Obama administration introduced the H-4 work permit, Bangalore Srikumar quit her H-1B job and moved to San Diego to be with her husband.

“In this century, canceling the whole work authorization for women it doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “It goes back to the olden days when women were not allowed to work.”

She emphasized that H-4 workers pay taxes and want to contribute economically.

“We want to work,” Bangalore Srikumar said. “After studying, after doing everything, you don’t want to sit at home.”