Recently, my 4-year-old daughter asked me, “Why are you always home? Why does only Daddy go to the office?”
Her question broke my heart. When I was growing up in India, I watched my mother go to her banking job each day. This gave me confidence that I could one day be a professional. Now my daughter has to watch her mother sitting at home, lonely and bored.
The reason is a little-known facet of American immigration policy. When American companies hire foreign-born, high-skilled workers like my husband, their spouses need a special visa, the H-4 EAD, in order to work. Such a visa has existed since 2015, but on Feb. 20 the Trump administration officially proposed to cancel it. In anticipation of this draft rule change, employers have been reluctant to hire spouses like me because we soon may be forced to quit our jobs.
The most frustrating part is that I have experience and skills that Texas employers need. This state has a massive shortage of workers with technology skills, and when I speak with employers, they are impressed with my qualifications. In India, I handled information-technology research and development for two multinational companies. In 2017, I completed my master’s degree in information technology from the University of Houston, graduating with a 4.0 GPA. I’m proficient in complicated programming languages, and I continue to take online courses to develop my skills.
Initially, employers are excited to meet with me, but during the interviews, one issue comes up again and again: Are you sure about your visa? If we hire you, will you be able to stay? Unfortunately, I’m not able to give them the assurance they need. After that, I never hear from them.
The overwhelming majority of H-4 EAD holders are women, which means rescinding their visas would turn thousands of mothers and wives into a subordinate class, unable to help support their families and live independent lives. There are about 16,800 H-1B spouses in Texas — and about 90,000nationwide who have the work permit. Those numbers may sound small, but we can bring a lot of value to the marketplace, particularly when it comes to addressing the skills gap that U.S. employers face in science, technology, engineering and math. Foreign-born residents on temporary visas earn nearly 27 percent of STEM master’s degrees and nearly 37 percent of STEM Ph.D.s.
A recent survey finds that H-4 EAD holders in particular work in fields with very low employment rates — in other words, fields where our skills are in high demand. Because our skills help create jobs, a preliminary analysis of that survey finds that rescinding the H-4 EAD would not bring more employment opportunities to U.S.-born workers.
I came to Houston in December 2013 to join my husband, a chemical engineer who works for a Houston company on an H-1 B visa. The spousal work visa didn’t exist back then, but I was in graduate school, so it wasn’t a problem. After the EAD was implemented, I decided to pursue that route, knowing that my student visa would allow me to work only for up to three years after graduation. Many of my classmates who are married to H-1B recipients are now working on their student visa. But when those visas expire, they’ll have to apply for the H-4 EAD — if it still exists. If it doesn’t, they’ll be like me: stuck at home, unable to help support my family.
On a recent morning, I was getting my daughter up and dressed when she said, “Why do I have to go to school?” I told her she needs to work hard and aim high, because she can be anything she wants to be in this world.
I want her to know deep down that this is true. I want her to look at me and see a confident professional — a woman I once was and who I’d like to be again.
Krishnan is an information technology expert. She lives in Houston.