Work permits for H-4 visa holders

Source: The Hindu, May

Over 179,600 potential applicants are said to be waiting, many from India.
With a new rule for work authorisation permits given to a class of H-4 visa holders going into the implementation phase this week, over 179,600 potential applicants are said to be waiting in line, many from India, for what they are calling their “Independence Day.”

On a conference call experts from a leading South Asian diaspora organisation, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), said that many of these spouses of H-1B had not worked from anywhere between three to ten years, and it was with mixed feelings of trepidation and hope that they were seeking to finally enter the workforce.

The change in the policy towards H-4 visa holders came about through action proposed by the Obama administration initially in 2013 and then finally made a reality in May 2014.

During that month the Department of Homeland Security announced the formal publication of the new rules, following a 60-day public comment period, which implied that the extension of work authorisation to H-4 visas would only apply in the cases of H-1B visa holders who had begun the process of seeking “lawful permanent residence” in the U.S., in other words a ‘green-card’ application.

The ruling had particular salience to visa holders of Indian citizenship, particularly those working in the IT sector, as India is the country receiving the largest proportion of H-1B visas from the U.S. every year. In 2013 its citizens received 99,705 H-1B visas of a total of 153,223 issued globally, slightly over 65 per cent.

The changes were initially announced last year a few months after The Hindu carried a series of articles (‘For Indian women in America, a sea of broken dreams,’ July 29, 2012 and ‘On the H-4, a trail of misery and lonely battles,’ July 30, 2012) that spotlighted the debilitating personal circumstances faced by many ‘H-4s.

These included depression, loss of enthusiasm and self-esteem associated with joblessness and social isolation, in numerous cases leading to mental health issues or familial breakdown.

Reflecting a greater sensitivity to this reality of spouses of H-1B visa holders the DHS said during its initial announcement of the proposed changes that it, “recognises that the limitation on the period of stay is not the only event that could cause an H-1B worker to leave his or her employment and cause disruption to the employer's business, inclusive of the loss of significant time and money invested in the immigration process... This rule will encourage H-1B skilled workers to not abandon their adjustment application because their H-4 spouse is unable to work.”

Immigration specialists at SAALT this week noted that as the new rules came into force on May 26, many “thousands” of H-4 visa holders were still excluded and could not work, as their spouses were not on track to receive a green card.

They added that while numerous community organisations had made efforts to lobby with Congress and the administration on behalf of this population, there was no indication that there were plans to extend work rights to the broader H-4 group.