Thousands of Indian Women Find Their American Dreams in Jeopardy

Thousands of Indian Women Find Their American Dreams in Jeopardy


Originally published by The NY Times

For seven years, Deepika Jalakam sat at home. Bored, unfulfilled and dependent on her husband for every dime, she struggled with the notion that her professional life was doomed in the land of opportunity.

So when the employment card arrived in the mail in 2015, Ms. 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, Ms. 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. Ms. Jalakam and thousands of other spouses of skilled workers have been told that their special work permits — authorization 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 program that allowed spouses to work. The change, expected in June, would force thousands of mainly Indian women who followed their husbands to the United States to give up their jobs — even though many are highly educated workers with sought-after skills.

“We were happily working and feeling settled down with the life we wanted. Suddenly, this announcement came and there is instability,” said Ms. 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 program.

The annual visa scramble began this week, with applications delivered by the truckload to government processing centers. The petitions represent tens of thousands of foreigners vying for the opportunity to work in the United States 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. Among the applicants are Indian math and science teachers headed for rural schools, as well as physicians and other professionals.

But the H-1B program 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 program’s overhaul, and his administration has taken steps to tighten scrutiny of applications.

Yet demand for the visas continues unabated. In 2017, for the fifth consecutive year, the federal government was so flooded with petitions it stopped accepting them within a week. This year, officials say they will almost certainly have to resort again to a computer lottery to select 85,000 recipients, the maximum allowed each year. Universities and research organizations are exempt from the cap.

Most recipients are from India. In 2017, Indians received 129,097 of the coveted visas; an additional 22,993 went to Chinese 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 United States, but their families are in limbo, stuck in a ballooning backlog of green cards that are approved but cannot yet be issued.

While skilled workers from most countries receive permanent residency a year or two after applying, Indians must wait a decade or longer because of their large numbers. The delays have meant that thousands of women, many highly educated, had until recently been forced to stay at home while their husbands worked.


Ms. Jalakam kept her government-issued employment authorization document in a Hindu shrine in her kitchen. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Children must also wait. If their family’s green card is not approved before they turn 21, the children are no longer eligible for legal residency as dependents and must leave the country, though they may have spent much of their lives in the United States. The much-debated legal protection for so-called Dreamers, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, applies to children who entered the country illegally, not to the offspring of legal immigrants.

The Obama administration attempted a partial fix to the problem in 2015, authorizing temporary work permits for spouses of H-1B visa holders who were in the pipeline to get a green card. Under the program, known as H-4EAD, an estimated 100,000 spouses, overwhelmingly women, have obtained work permits.

“I felt like I was free from a cage to fly in any direction I want,” Ms. Jalakam said of her work authorization that year.

Last fall’s announcement that the temporary work program would soon be scrapped has energized 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. In early February, about 500 Indians descended on Capitol Hill to press for a solution to the green card backlog. At a rally, they hoisted posters that read, “Legal Immigrants Matter Too” and “#H4EAD Let Spouses Work.”

On the other hand, a group of information technology workers who claim they lost their jobs to imported workers has filed suit to overturn the spousal work authorization program. The Department of Homeland Security, the federal agency which oversees it, said it was completing an economic analysis and was likely to render its decision in June.

L. Francis Cissna, director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency that issues the permits, said the Trump administration’s priority was to protect American workers. “The reason there is a lot of concern about Americans being displaced is because it is happening,” he said in a recent interview.

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 United States and put American companies at a competitive disadvantage.

“Their valued, long-term employees will choose to leave their companies for other employment opportunities in countries that allow these workers and their families to raise their standard of living,” the council warned.

Doug Rand, former assistant director for entrepreneurship in the Obama administration, said Indian immigrants have long been “essential for American technological innovation” and offering work permits to spouses makes sense. “If it weren’t for these outrageous backlogs, they would be Americans already,” he said.

The backlog that is creating the problem is a byproduct of immigration laws drafted decades ago.

In 1965, Congress established that no country could receive more than 7 percent of green cards issued in a year. In 1990, it determined that only 140,000 employment-based green cards could be granted annually, and each family member requires a separate card.

Then the rise of the tech sector created a surge in demand for workers. Indians had the skills that American companies prized, so employers turned to the nonimmigrant H-1B visa to import them. Down the road, companies chose to sponsor many of the visa holders for green cards, which because of the annual caps created the current backlog.

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.”

Some families have had to wait so long that they fear their children will reach adulthood and be forced to leave. Lakshmi Vishnubhotla, who has worked for 10 years as a teacher in Marion County, S.C., is currently sponsored for an H-1B by the school district. He was named teacher of the year for the district in 2015-16.


Photos of Ms. Jalakam and her husband Vinay Kumar. The couple came to the United States when Mr. Kumar got an H-1B visa. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Mr. Vishnubhotla’s green card application, which includes his family, was approved in 2012. They are still waiting for the cards to be issued. Given that the wait time is 10 years, and getting longer, he is worried. In seven years, his 14-year-old daughter, Sivani, will be considered an adult. His son, Sarvan, will turn 21 in nine years. At that time, they will no longer be eligible for green cards as Mr. Vishnubhotla’s dependents and could be forced to return to India.

“We don’t want to split our family,” Mr. Vishnubhotla said.

Teachers who arrived after him, including some whom he trained from Jamaica, Venezuela and elsewhere, already have permanent residency.

Jigar Madlani, a software engineer in Parsippany, N.J., who came on an H-1B and whose green card was approved in 2013, also has no idea when it will be issued. The wait has deprived him of promotions because changing job categories risks his place in line. But what most unsettles the Madlani household is the prospect that his wife, Heta, will lose her ability to work.

Armed with an H-4EAD permit, she was hired in late 2015 as a case manager for New Jersey’s 211 line, handling calls from drug addicts, homeless families, victims of domestic violence and others in crisis seeking help.

“I had no identity in this country. I got it, and now they want to take it away from me,” said Ms. Madlani, who opened her first bank account after getting the work permit and joined the rally on Capitol Hill.

Back in California, Ms. Jalakam dreads returning to the days when she filled her time tutoring students in math and taking online technology courses.

She arrived in the United States after entering an arranged marriage with a man her parents had identified as a perfect match. Her husband, Vinay Kumar, was of the same farming caste in southern India, and he was advancing in his career in the United States.

“Deepika wanted to use her academic knowledge in the U.S.,” said her father, Sadanand Jakam, who is visiting with his wife from Hyderabad, India.

But it would take several years before she could put her education to use. The family’s employment-based green card, approved in 2010, could still be years from being issued.

“I would see a woman all dressed up as an executive and wonder, ‘Will I ever be like that?’” Ms. Jalakam recalled.

Now that she has a well-paying job, Ms. Jalakam’s main fear is losing it. She was pregnant with their second child when the administration announced plans to rescind the work authorizations. She began fretting about how they would afford their $4,800 monthly mortgage and the high cost of living in California.

After giving birth to Reya in late December, heart palpitations and high blood pressure landed her back in the hospital. Her doctor determined her condition was caused by stress.

During her recovery, she found camaraderie on the “SaveH4EAD” Facebook page.

“I realized there are strong-willed women like me who really want to work,” she said, sipping chai in the living room with her parents while her baby slept close by.

In early March, she received her second employment-authorization card in the mail, for another three years. But Ms. Jalakam knows she may not have it for long.

So, she fears, does her employer.

“I’m about to get a promotion,” she said. “I am afraid they won’t give it to me.”

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