In the summer of 2011, Radhika MB, a Bangalore based journalist had to shift her life to the US on fairly short notice. Her husband had left for the US and after forty short days, she’d finally gotten hold of her H4 visa. A new life awaited her in the place that, for many generations of Indians, typified a land of opportunities. But back then, for many like her, work still remained nothing more than an impossibility.
This too was soon changed when in 2014, the Obama administration passed an order enabling spouses of H1-b visa holders to work, provided they met conditions of course. Finally, thousands of spouses had an option of working and earning in their own names. An option that today—almost four years after its inception—surely seems to have run its course.
Globally, the last couple of years have witnessed a rise in protectionism within the socio-economic policies of the various governments. A world that had been taking sure and strong steps towards globalization has, in a very short period, taken a turn where protectionist policies are finding a larger mandate.
Although the trend has had varying degrees of support from nations across the world, the most prominent impact of such a shift has been from the USA—a country that has long been the propagator of free and connected markets. In addition to the numerous trade tariffs and sanctions, the crackdown by Trump government on the H1-b visa process has been in line with the vision of spurring domestic jobs and production. Over the past two years, much has been written about its impact on both Indian talent and the IT companies that depend on relatively cheaper talent base. But those are not the only groups who stand affected by the changing economic nature of US markets. This rise in protectionism could soon impact the work prospects of a relatively smaller group of individuals as well: spouses of Indian H1B visa holders.
A move, which was recently reassured by Trump as being on its way to be enforced, seeks to revoke the work permits that were given to the spouses of H1-b working professionals. So, many like Radhika would soon be out of an employment opportunity.
It would be wise also to note that India is not the only country which is facing a tough end to the growing protectionism. As the ideology stems into all facets of public life, so has America’s policies affected countries like Mexico, China, Canada, and parts of European Unions. have all faced consequences of rising protectionism within the US.
Due to a higher proportion skilled Indian professionals applying for H1-b visa, in times of its tightening regulations, they remain one of the most adversely affected group. According to USCIS study, Indian accounted for more than 75 percent of all H-1B visas. As they still form a significant part of the total number of H1-b visa issued, a move to rescind work permits of their spouses as a report is going to affect many who had been working the country for quite some time.
At the turn of this decade, Radhika, like many skilled and qualified spouse of Indian H1-b visa holder was a part of a growing population of skilled professionals who had to remain unemployed because the only route to employment for them was getting a Green Card; a process that’s even more daunting and time taking for Indians as there are so many applicants for it. With the roster of Green Card allotment remaining the same over the years, the increasing number of Indians applying for it meant the many had to wait years to get a green card, and as a result a work permit; a waiting period which stretches to well over a decade. As the New York Times report mentioned earlier shares, ‘Indians in the Green Card process since 2008 are only now receiving them.’
The situation took a turn for the better when in 2015 temporary work permits were authorized to spouses who already were already in the process of obtaining a green card somewhere down the line. And just like that, the provision called H4 EAD allowed spouses, mainly of whom were woman, to have work permits and obtain employment. This enabled many to access earning opportunities and add to the financial security of their families. Over the period from 2015-2017, as many as a million individuals have been given employment authorizations under this provision, all of which now stand affected by the proposed move.
Like many government policies, enacted by an elected majority party only to be later overturned by another, usually ideologically differing government, the H4EAD program seems to well in sight to the rescinded, and all work permits allowed by the provision to become void; all with a sway of the arms (actually a signature but that’s just because that is how we as humans have chosen to enforce our will). And with new reports coming in that the move is all but done, many in situations similar to Radhika might find themselves soon becoming ineligible to work in the US. This move has created panic among many currently living in the US, many of whom have taken to online forums to showcase their disapproval of the move. Companies like Microsoft have also come out and said that the move could potentially discourage Indian talent to look for jobs in the US.
Although this policy change remains a small corner in the sea protectionist policy changes sweeping across the US economy, it remains an issue to speak about. Lost under piles of voices and concerns which span both the political and economic realms and issues like immigration, deportation, and trade wars, spouses of H1 b holders are rallying together to put their point across to the government. Campaigns such as the “SaveH4EAD,” in addition to other legislative measures have come in to take corrective steps. Not much is expected though as such policies are in line with Trumps executive order to ‘Buy American and Hire American.” That seems to little solace that such actions can provide. For when single-minded executions of protectionist policies begun rolling, many groups are trampled below whose voice account for almost nothing in retrospect.
But as the trump administration misses yet another deadline to give a clear decision on the fate of many such immigrant spouses, companies have already begun adjusting to such policy shifts. After a period of ramping up their the US hires numbers—often at the cost of expensive and now even more difficult option of hiring professionals from India, many Indian IT giants are ready to reduce their dependence on traditional Indian talent pools. Other companies like Microsoft have expressed their willingness to move jobs outside the country in order to attract the best of global talent. It would be quite counter-intuitive to the present government's stance on bringing jobs back. But till any concrete resolution is passed, many remain in a limbo-like state, anticipating the future of H4 EAD work authorizations.