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So when the employment card arrived in the mail in 2015, Jalakam did what she often does when good fortune comes her way: She placed it before the gods in the Hindu shrine mounted in her kitchen cabinet, blessed it with a dab of red “kum kum” powder and recited a prayer of gratitude.
Within weeks, Jalakam, who has a degree in biotechnology, landed a job as an analyst at an insurance company. The next year, she and her husband, Vinay Kumar, a software engineer, bought a house. In 2017, the finances of the Indian immigrant couple were secure enough that they decided to have a second child.
All that planning, though, is in jeopardy. Jalakam and thousands of other spouses of skilled workers have been told that their special work permits – authorisation that can mean the difference between struggling and thriving in their adopted homeland – are likely to be revoked.
The Trump administration announced last fall that, as part of a crackdown on H-1B visas issued for skilled workers to enter the United States, it plans to rescind an Obama-era programme that allowed spouses to work. The change, expected in June, would mean that thousands of mainly Indian women who followed their husbands to the US will have to give up their jobs – even though many are highly educated workers.
“We were happily working and feeling settled down with the life we wanted. Suddenly, this announcement came and there is instability,” said Jalakam, 32, who now finds herself worrying about everything from day-to-day spending to vacation plans.
Across the country, thousands of Indian families are caught in a similar dilemma because of the outsized role that they play in the H-1B visa programme. The annual visa scramble began this week. The petitions represent tens of thousands of foreigners vying for the opportunity to work in the US for three years or longer. Many are Indian software engineers and computer programmers recruited by American technology companies that say they cannot find enough talent in this country.
But the H-1B programme has spawned controversy. During his campaign, President Trump invited Americans displaced by H-1B workers to his rallies. Since taking office, he has ordered the programme’s overhaul, and his administration has taken steps to tighten scrutiny of applications.
Still, demand for the visas continues unabated. In 2018, for the sixth consecutive year, the federal government was so flooded with petitions it stopped accepting them within a week. On Friday, officials announced they had reached their annual cap within five days and would resort again to a computer lottery to select the targeted 85,000 recipients.
Nearly 3,65,000 H-1B petitions were approved in the 2017 fiscal year. Three-quarters of them went to Indian nationals. Their success has been a mixed blessing. Tens of thousands of Indians on the temporary visas were later sponsored by their employers to remain permanently in the US, but their families are in limbo, stuck in a ballooning backlog of green cards that are approved but cannot yet be issued. The delays have meant that until recently thousands of women, many highly educated, remained at home while their husbands worked.
The Obama administration attempted a partial fix to the problem in 2015, authorising temporary work permits for spouses of H-1B visa holders who were in the pipeline to get a green card. Under the programme, known as H-4EAD, an estimated 1,00,000 spouses, overwhelmingly women, have obtained work permits. “I felt like I was free from a cage to fly in any direction I want,” Jalakam said of her work authorisation that year.
Last fall’s announcement that the temporary work programme would soon be scrapped has energised Indian women. Many who had sunk money into property and other investments with earnings from their jobs took to Twitter, using #standwithh4ead and #saveh4ead to raise awareness of their plight. “We’re determined to save our jobs,” said Jansi Kumar of Seattle, a founder of a Facebook page started in December, “Save H4EAD,” which has attracted nearly 5,000 followers.
On the other hand, a group of information technology workers who lost their jobs to imported workers has filed suit to overturn the spousal work authorisation programme. The department of homeland security, the federal agency which oversees the programme, said it was completing an economic analysis and was likely to render its decision in June.
In January, the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents titans like Apple, IBM and Microsoft, argued in a letter to the administration that revoking spousal work permits could prompt foreign talent to leave the US and put American companies at a competitive disadvantage.
In June 2015, the latest year for which official data is available, about 300,000 Indians, including spouses and children, were waiting for their permanent residency cards. Indians in the green-card process since 2008 are only now receiving them. “No one should be stuck waiting more than 10 years for a green card. It hurts employers and employees and their families,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School. “Indians are being held hostage by our broken immigration system.”
Back in California, Jalakam dreads returning to the days when she filled her time tutoring students in math and taking online technology courses. “I would see a woman all dressed up as an executive and wonder, ‘Will I ever be like that?'” recalled Jalakam, whose family’s green card was approved in 2010 but is still unissued. NYT News Service