When Molika Gupta immigrated to the U.S. in 2013, after marrying her husband who was already working in the states, she had no idea she would be unable to work. In India, she had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked in patent licensing—but once she came to the U.S., she found she could not work on the H-4 visa, which is given to immediate family members of an H-1B worker. (The H-1B is a temporary visa awarded to highly skilled foreign workers, to fill specialized jobs for which there aren’t enough qualified American workers. An H-4 visa allows immediate family members to legally accompany H-1B holders to the U.S. and study here, but it does not authorize them to work.) She decided to get a second master’s degree, which put her on a student visa, but two years later, she was forced to switch back to the H-4 after striking out with the H-1B lottery. (There’s a cap of 85,000 H-1B visas per year—a lottery system is now used to determine which petitions will be approved.)
“That’s when the darkness and depression and loneliness started,” she says. “I was not expecting something like this would happen to me.” When her H-4 work authorization was finally granted in 2017, employers were wary of hiring someone with a gap in their employment history. “Hiring managers couldn’t understand what happened because they’re not really aware of the immigration process,” she says. Now, she works as a freelancer—and advocates for other H-1B spouses in her situation.
“It’s just fundamentally wrong”
Gupta is one of about 100,000 women who could lose the ability to work if the Trump administration follows through on yet another anti-immigration measure, which would revoke work permits for H-1B spouses—more formally known as the employment authorization document (EAD). Since 2015, when President Obama introduced EAD, H-4 visa holders have had the ability to work without a green card. At the moment, the green card wait time for highly skilled Indian immigrants—who account for more than 75% of H-1B holders—is decades long, which means that without being granted work authorization, their spouses could be barred from working for the foreseeable future.
An overwhelming majority of those spouses are women, for whom the ability to work secures their economic independence—and helps bolster the U.S. economy. In a survey of 2,411 H-4 holders, the advocacy group Gupta works with (which started as a Facebook page, “Save H4EAD“) found that 94% of respondents were women. Nearly 60% of the people surveyed have postgraduate or professional degrees, and about 57% have lived in the U.S. for more than five years and have U.S.-born children. The women who could be affected don’t just work in the tech industry; they are teachers and nurses and architects.
“These are people who are on a path to becoming permanent citizens,” says Todd Schulte, the president of immigration advocacy group FWD.us. “It’s just fundamentally wrong.”
The Trump administration already cracked down on the H-1B visa last year, when he issued an executive order that led to a more stringent review of H-1B petitions as well as increased scrutiny of compensation and why the job in question requires a foreign worker. Immigration lawyers have reported a higher rate of denials and delays issuing visas. But the decision on H-4 work authorization—which was first proposed over a year ago—has been delayed for months, leaving H-4 holders in a state of fearful anticipation. The EAD work authorization was initially introduced through an executive order by Obama, and Trump could similarly revoke it by executive order, although it could potentially be challenged in court.
According to Schulte, the White House has not made a move to revoke H-4 work permits in part because they don’t have a good reason to do so. “Take a step back and think about how unprecedented this move is,” he says. “This is a successful program. There is nobody saying this is somehow bad for the economy and country who can back it up with economic stats. They don’t actually have economic justification for it.”
What it means for U.S. tech jobs
For tech companies, which have historically employed tens of thousands of H-1B workers, a decision to revoke work permits for spouses could compromise their ability to attract talent from countries like India and China. (Microsoft president Brad Smith has cautioned that the decision could force them to move jobs out of the U.S.) In Congress, there is bipartisan support for H-4 work authorization: Earlier this year, Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Mia Love (R-UT) penned a letter with the support of 130 bipartisan members of Congress, imploring Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to preserve the current regulation. Jayapal also has legislation drafted that can be introduced in the event of a decision.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to welcome one person to contribute their considerable skills to our economy, but tell their spouse that they have to stay home,” she says. “Everyone—regardless of gender—deserves to be able to use and enhance their skills, be financially self-sufficient, thrive mentally and physically, and pursue their dreams. Moreover, it hurts our ability to attract and retain workers. Many of our peers, like Canada and Australia, provide work authorization for accompanying spouses. It’s simply the right thing to do.”
Congressman Ro Khanna, whose district falls within Silicon Valley, says that while people in his town halls sometimes express concerns over the H-1B visa, nobody ever speaks out against the H-4 work permit. “I’ve never had a single constituent in my two years of Congress say that the spouses of H-1B visa holders should not be able to work,” he says. “I think people view that as inhumane or cruel.” That economic independence is particularly important, he says, given there is higher incidence of domestic abuse or violence when a spouse can’t work. And in places with a high cost of living—such as the Bay Area—Khanna says the loss of a second income could significantly impact the livelihood of many families.
The one upside of Trump’s rhetoric is that it has raised awareness and shed light on the plight of H-1B spouses, many of whom only realize they can’t work without the EAD after coming to the U.S. And some people have a “distorted” image of the women who carry the H-4 visa, according to Gupta. “It’s not like I was waiting for someone to appear as a knight in shining armor and take me to the U.S.,” Gupta says. “That’s not the case for many women out there.”
Gupta and other advocates—the Save H4-EAD group is led by a group of about 20 people—have drawn more attention to their cause by meeting with lawmakers to share their stories. Raising awareness in the U.S. has also enlightened many women in India who may have to move to the U.S. (Though Gupta adds, “Nobody should be forced to choose between their freedom to work and marriage.”) The group is also preparing for a commenting period if and when the Trump administration makes a decision on work permits.
But Gupta says there is little she can do to brace herself for what could be her new reality. “Nobody can prepare for a situation that they don’t deserve to be in,” Gupta says. “Fighting for your work rights in a country that is the most developed in the world is ironic. I don’t know what should be my next action.”