Thousands of Indian women find their American dreams in jeopardy

Trump administration, as part of crackdown on H-1B visas, plans to rescind Obama-era programme that allowed spouses to work

Livermore, California: 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, Jalakam did what she often does when good fortune comes her way: She placed it before 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 United States will have 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 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 outsize role that they play in the H-1B visa programme.

The annual visa scramble began this week, with applications delivered by the truckload to government processing centres. 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 programmes recruited by US 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 programme has spawned controversy. During his campaign, President Donald 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. Universities and research organisations are exempt from the cap.

Nearly 365,000 H-1B petitions were approved in the 2017 fiscal year. This number includes first-time applications subject to the cap and renewals, which are not capped. 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 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 until recently thousands of women, many highly educated, remained at home while their husbands worked.

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 programme, 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, 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 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,” Jalakam said of her work authorisation that year.

L. Francis Cissna, director of US 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.

Jigar Madlani, a software engineer in Parsippany, New Jersey, came on an H-1B and hisgreen card was approved in 2013. But none of the family’s cards have been issued, and he fears his wife, Heta, will soon 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 Heta Madlani.

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