WSJ published an op-ed on this story by HackerRank’s CEO & Cofounder Vivek Ravisankar.
Note: names in this article denoted with an asterisk (*) have been changed to honor requests for anonymity. Many of the H-4 visa holders we spoke to were reticent to share their stories due to public backlash.
When Priya* arrived in America six years ago, she was eager to put her technical skills to use.
She’d attained a Master’s degree in computer programming from one of India’s top colleges. She had four years’ experience as a Java software engineer. She spoke three languages fluently and was learning a fourth. She was a highly skilled, independent woman who was on her way to a successful career.
When her husband, Arjun, was approved for an H1-B visa in 2012, Priya had no choice but to follow him to the United States. She was given an H-4 (a visa for H1-B holders’ family members) and packed her bags for Seattle.
At first, things were exciting, new, vibrant. Living solely on Arjun’s salary, the couple made the best of their situation and found joy in small things: good coffee, a bustling Sunday market, the drizzly tranquility of the Pacific Northwest.
But Priya would soon be exposed to the dark side of life as an H-4 visa holder — a life of dependency, loneliness, and wasted skills.
The H1-B visa: A primer
To fully understand the underutilization of H-4 visa holders’ skills, one must first understand the larger system of skilled worker visas in the United States — and that story begins with the H1-B visa.
The H1-B is one of 11 specialty worker visas offered by the U.S. Department of State, permitted under section 101(a)(17)(H) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. To qualify, a worker must have at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent), and possess specialized skill in a given field. Most H1-B holders work in engineering or computer-related fields for large tech companies and IT firms, but the visa also covers fashion models (including, at one time, current First Lady Melania Trump).
The visa allows a worker to stay in the U.S. for three years, with the possibility of an additional three-year extension, but one-year extensions are issued beyond the six-year limit in cases where the worker has a pending application for permanent residency.
Currently, a quota of 85,000 H1-B visas (65,000 for bachelor’s graduates, and 20,000 for students who completed a master’s at a U.S. institution) are given out each year, in addition to 100,000 reissues or extensions. For five consecutive years, the demand for H1-B visas has far exceeded the cap: in 2016, a record 236,000 applications were submitted.
In years where the quota is quickly met and exceeded, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services selects applicants by way of a lottery, prioritizing random chance over merit and skill.
The overwhelming majority of eventual H1-B visas — some 71% — are issued to applicants from India.
Whether the current H1-B system is good or bad for America (and the workers themselves) is an incredibly complex question. Supporters turn to a wealth of literature that shows H1-B visa holders boost innovation and productivity (and consequently, the U.S. economy); detractors cite the fact that these visas suck away domestic jobs — and that the vast majority of H1-B workers are recruited by large firms that underpay them, and lock them into contracts reminiscent of white-collar indentured servitude.
We won’t dive deeply into these arguments here, but a good, non-biased overview can be found here.
So, where does the H-4 visa come in?
H-4 visas are given to spouses (and children under 21 years of age) of H1-B visa holders for the duration of the latter’s visa stay.
Roughly 125,000 H-4 visas are issued per year — and mirroring the stats of H1-B visa holders, approximately 80% of them are given to Indian women like Priya.
More granular statistics on who these women are is hard to come by. But an independent study of 400 H-4 visa holders run by activist Rashi Bhatnagar — an H-4 holder herself — suggests that most are female, between the ages of 26-35, and college-educated.
The H-4 is a “dependant” visa, which means its holders are expected to rely on the income of their H1-B spouses.
For many years, H-4 holders were not permitted to work at all. In May of 2015, the government passed the Employment Authorization for Certain H-4 Dependent Spouses (EAD) rule, which now allows H-4 holders to work if their spouse has already applied for a Green Card. But the Green Card process currently has an astronomical backlog — and a currently pending lawsuit filed by Save Jobs USA (a group of American IT employees who claim to have lost their jobs to foreign visa holders) threatens to undo the EAD rule altogether.
Even with the EAD intact, many H-4 visa holders are still mired in a state of mandated inactivity, unable to leverage their hard-earned skills in the American economy. They can’t seek employment of any kind, start their own business, or obtain a Social Security number. They are reduced to a “childlike dependency.”
“When a wife enters the United States on a dependent spouse visa, she enters at the wish of her husband,” writes University of North Dakota law professor, Sabrina Balgamwalla. “Her dependent immigration status allows her husband to control her ability to live in the United States and all rights that stem from that status.”
Skilled and Powerless
Rashi Bhatnagar runs an “H4 visa, a curse,” a Facebook support group for H-4 visa holders that boasts over 17,000 members. Here, a variety of highly skilled, educated women pose questions, concerns, and grievances about the visa system — most of which center on an inability to work.
Among them: Veena*, a 33 year-old H-4 holder from Kolkata.
After graduating with a master’s degree in pharmacology and working in a lab for two years, her husband got an H1-B visa, and she followed him to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She’s now been in the U.S. for four years and has been unable to work or utilize her degree the entire time. She tells us she is now in a depressive state:
“I feel like I am in a prison and doing nothing, just being housewife. My Biggest ambition is to become a scientist — but I can’t work toward that here… I came from middle class family. My parents are farmers, and they worked so hard for my tuition fee. So, I studied very hard, was a merit student, and stayed busy working two jobs in India. Here, I feel hollow. I feel like a loser, putting my degrees to no use. I am literally crying as I write this. Powerless.”
She is not alone.
Preethi*, a master’s graduate in nanotechnology, has been in the U.S. on an H-4, unable to work, for two years as she waits for her EAD to be approved. “I just sit at home, watching television, passing the time,” she says. “I can’t even earn a personal income from home, since it is illegal.” All she can do is wait until an over-logged system deems her eligible to put her experience and training to use.
Shruti* was a doctor in India before joining her husband in the U.S. on an H-4. She voices frustration over her inability to practice: “I live in a rural area that is in need of doctors right now. If permitted to work, I would not only achieve my goal of becoming a great doctor in the U.S., but could help serve my community…Instead, I am wasting my medical expertise and knowledge by just sitting at home.”
Sudarshana* holds a graduate business degree, and wants to start her own design firm; instead, she is “stuck in [her] house” in Cupertino, California. “With my skillset, I could build my own company and [create] jobs for Americans,” she says. “But that is not an option for me.”
A few non-EAD H-4 holders we spoke to were able to apply for, and get, their own H-1B. But few have luck in a lottery with 3x as many applicants as available visas. Even those who do land an H1-B often have trouble finding work sponsors: it is estimated that as many as 85% of H1-B workers in the U.S. are men, and the sad reality is that women — foreign workers or not — often face a gender bias in STEM.
Immigration attorney Ann Cun has been helping H1-B and H4 visa holders navigate employment law for nearly two decades. Based in the SIlicon Valley — a hot-spot for skilled worker visas — she’s had no shortage of work.
“You’ve got tens of thousands of H-4 visa holders who are forced to stay at home — who are not contributing to our economy,” she says. “How does that benefit American society?”
A common, and seemingly valid, complaint is that allowing H-4 visa holders to work would suck more jobs away from Americans. And certainly, this happens: an internet search yields dozens of anecdotes from domestic workers who were fired, then forced to train their foreign replacements before departing.
But Cun says it is foolish to “apply this logic wholesale” to an entire class of workers — especially when many of them are eager to start their own companies and create more jobs.
So, what can be done?
First, realize that technical skills are at the heart of this issue. Most H1-B visa workers are technically advanced in areas where there is a shortage of skill in the United States especially in Silicon Valley, where technology is constantly and rapidly shifting.
While there has been much discussion about the future of H1-B visas, these workers’ spouses — a large pool of talented, technically gifted workers in their own right — have largely been absent from the conversation.
“There has been talk of moving away from our current H1-B lottery toward a system that is based more on skill and merit — and this same logic should be applied to H-4 visa holders,” Vivek Ravisankar, CEO & Cofounder of HackerRank said in his op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. “What if these workers’ partners were eligible for a skill-assessment that would quantify their potential value to our economy, and America at large?”
In Seattle, Priya is still jobless.
Her husband, Arjun, has not yet applied for permanent residency — and if he doesn’t do so by next year, the couple risks running out their six-year stay and having to return to India.
For Priya, this wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. “I do think about what my life would be like [in India],” she muses. “You are always told that there is so much opportunity in the U.S. — and there is. But when you are not permitted to work, the luxuries and comforts here lose their appeal.”
Over Skype, she pauses. And in the silence, the white noise of a summer afternoon in the Seattle suburbs comes through the receiver: a barking dog, a distant car alarm, a child shouting in the street.
It is 2 PM on a Tuesday, and the Java engineer — once busy and high-achieving — has no plans.