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Thousands of Indian women in the U.S. are fighting to keep work permits

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The Trump administration has signaled it plans to strip employment authorization from spouses of some H-1B visa holders. The change would mean that nearly 100,000 people — predominantly women from India who followed their spouses to the U.S. — would lose their ability to work in this country. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Joanne Elgart Jennings reports. This is part of an ongoing series of reports called “Chasing the Dream,” which reports on poverty and opportunity in America.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Nearly 1.8 million H-1B visas were distributed between 2001 and 2015. Designed to help employers hire highly skilled foreign workers, the program has come under fire. Last year the president signed an executive order to reform all employment based visa programs. Part of that crackdown could also strip employment authorization from the spouses of some H-1B holders. The change would mean that nearly 100,000 mainly Indian women could lose their right to work. Special correspondent Joanne Jennings reports from Silicon Valley, where tech companies rely heavily on these foreign workers.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Renuka Sivarajan and Morali Raghavan appear to be living the American dream. He works for oracle as a senior network engineer – and she runs a home day care business – which is booming.

    Two years ago, the family bought this home so Sivarajan could expand her daycare operation.And with the additional income, they can now afford the larger mortgage, and extra-curricular activities for their two sons.

    Originally from India, Sivarajan came to the United States in 2003 as an IT worker but her visa was tied to a job in Arizona. So when she moved to California to be with her husband – she lost her work permit.

  • RENUKA SIVARAJAN:

    It was really depressing and frustrating, basically. I have all the skills, and there are jobs out there, but I just can't get it. I mean even if I close my eyes, and think about those days it feels dark, just dark.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    As the wife of an H-1B visa holder, Sivarajan was permitted to legally reside in the U.S., but not to work, until she received her green card. Sivarajan spent a total of nine years out of the workforce. So she was elated when the Obama administration created the "H4 EAD" visa in 2015. It grants employment authorization for the spouses of H-1B visa holders who are in line for green cards.

    More than 100,000 spouses applied as of 2017.

  • RENUKA SIVARAJAN:

    That was like light at the end of the tunnel. I was so happy to know that, finally, I can be productive. I finally can start working.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    As of this April, there were more than 600,000 Indian immigrants, and their spouses and children – waiting for green cards. The wait can take decades for people from India – who make up the vast majority of H-1B workers. That's because each country can only get 7 percent of all employment-based green cards given out each year.

  • RENUKA SIVARAJAN:

    When people see us, they see these big homes, and good salaries, and happy families, but there is a lot of stress. I mean, in my daycare I have so many families that are in very similar situations, they are waiting for their green cards, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Sivarajan has been waiting for 7 years. And now she fears she could lose her work authorization yet again.

  • President Trump:

    We believe jobs must be offered to American workers first. does that make sense? [ applause ]

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    When President Trump signed his "buy american, hire american" executive order last year, he vowed to reform all employment based visa programs. And now, his administration is working on a plan to rescind work authorization for some spouses as well.

    More than a hundred members of congress sent a bi-partisan letter urging the Department of Human Services to reconsider. Among them, congresswoman Zoe Lofgren. Her silicon valley district is home to many companies who depend on skilled foreign workers. She says it's a mistake to target their spouses, who will eventually be able to work once they get through the green card backlog.

  • REP. ZOE LOFGREN (D-CA):

    They are American citizens in waiting. It doesn't serve our country to prevent them from contributing. They're going to be our fellow citizens.

  • RON HIRA:

    So, my main concern around the discussion around the H4 EAD is: Where do you draw the line?

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Ron Hira is a professor at Howard University and a scholar at the Economic Policy Institute.He thinks the trump administration is justified in calling for an end to the H4 EAD program, which he sees as an effort by the tech industry to expand its foreign workforce.

  • RON HIRA:

    The reason we're in this situation where there's a mismatch between the H-1B program and the green card program was 1998 and 2000, the tech industry pushed for a huge expansion of the H-1B program. It was obvious if you're going to increase the H-1B program without increasing the green cards, you're going to create a backlog.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Lofgren offered a bill to address that problem.

  • REP. ZOE LOGREN ( D-CA):

    The visas are allocated based on the country of birth. And so, Iceland, for example, that has a population of 350 thousand people, has the same number of visas as India, which has a population of 1.2 billion. There's no reason for allocating visas that are awarded based on skill and education, to where you were born. So, if we even that out, this whole system will work, not perfectly, but a lot better.

  • JOHN MIANO:

    If we eliminated the per country quotas, we will have replaced our diversity system of immigration with an India first system

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    John Miano was a computer scientist for 18 yrs, until he says he started losing job opportunities to foreign workers.

  • JOHN MIANO:

    So that's a job where the employer specified they're looking for foreigner workers.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    So he left his IT profession to become a lawyer. Now he's suing the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of laid-off employees at Southern California Edison. He says they join a long list of IT workers – at institutions like Disney, UCSF, and Abbott Labs – whom were all replaced by foreign H-1B workers.

    Miano says his clients now face even more competition from their spouses.

  • JOHN MIANO:

    It doesn't make any sense to bring in people to fill so-called jobs where Americans aren't available, and then allow the spouses to work with no restrictions at all.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    "No restrictions at all" – because H4 EAD holders can work wherever they want. That's not the case for their H-1B spouses, whose visas are tied to specific employers.

  • JOHN MIANO:

    It's totally bad for American workers. It's a sad thing that we're setting one group of labor against another in this job market, but the reality is, we need to think of Americans first when it comes to the American job market.

  • ANDY HALATAEI:

    This is not a zero sum game. If an H4 spouse comes here. They're going to contribute to their company, that hopefully is going to create more jobs and more openings for everybody. I think that we're better as a nation when we allow everybody to work and everybody to contribute.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Andy Halataei is a Vice President at the Information Technology Industry Council. He lobbies on behalf of big tech companies… including Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.

    In a letter to the dept of U.S. Citizenship and immigration services, tech trade groups, including itic, argued that revoking work permits for spouses could jeopardize american tech's competitive edge.

  • ANDY HALATAEI:

    This would really be a step backwards for us being able to attract top tier talent to the United States. Thirty other industrialized countries including Canada or Australia all allow for spousal authorization. So this would be a major disincentive if we were telling high-skilled immigrants that they could come here but their spouses would have to put their careers on hold when coming to the united states, and they might look elsewhere.

  • PRIYA YADAV:

    One thing which was the deciding factor was will I be able to work here.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Priya Yadav and her husband, Piyush Mittal, both have jobs in silicon valley. He works at amazon and she works at Comcast. When the couple married in India in 2017, Yadav was hesitant to move to the United States because she had a good career.

  • PRIYA YADAV:

    He told me that there's something called H4 EAD on which you can definitely work. So then I was like quite assured that okay fine, then there's no problem if I move here.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    For now, she is relishing the daily routine of getting ready for work. But the uncertainty over the H4 EAD program is stressful, so stressful that Yadav and Mittal have applied for permanent residency in Canada.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    How long did that take, from when you submitted the original application to the invitation? PIYUSH MITTAL: Altogether the complete process will take around 8 months

  • PRIYA YADAV:

    If this is rescinded, or this is probably taken away, we'll move to somewhere else..we'll move to Canada. Because we know we are skilled people, and there's demand for skilled people I believe everywhere.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    There are people in this country who believe that people like you and your husband are taking jobs away from Americans. What do you say to people watching this who might think that?

  • PRIYA YADAV:

    Jobs are out there. Companies are not putting them in their pockets and only shoveling them out to a few people. They're out there, and the hiring system, it's pretty rigorous.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Ron Hira says the amount of jobs is not the issue.

  • RON HIRA:

    The problem is, the rules are set up so that you can bring in H-1B workers without ever looking for an American worker. You can bring in H-1B workers and replace Americans, all legally

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Andy Halataei insists his member companies don't abuse the system, but use it to fill a gap in skilled workers.

  • ANDY HALATAEI:

    I can speak to how the majority of our companies use the H-1B program. It's a small percentage of their workforce and they're complementing the existing U.S. workforce to bring new products to market. If the negative perception around the H-1B program hurts our ability to do that, then we would love to see Congress work on broader immigration reform that addresses those problems.

  • JOANNE ELGART JENNINGS:

    Back in Fremont, California, Renuka Sivarajan and her family are hoping any decisions made in Washington – will allow them to continue living and working in a community where they've built their lives.

  • RENUKA SIVARAJAN:

    I am sitting here in one of the most developed countries in the world, fighting for the right to work. For me, this is home. For my kids this is home. They are American citizens, they've been going to school here, they have their friends here. So, why should I be forced to uproot myself, and my family, and the life that I've built for the last 15 years, and go somewhere else.

Editor’s Note: Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

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