Dr. Jagruti Vedamati came to the United States from India in 2007, after she met a professor from the University of Southern California who recognized her scientific talent and urged her to complete her PhD in his department. After graduating, however, she sat at home, unable to contribute her skills to the U.S. workforce. That’s because, as the wife of a foreign-born worker — her husband is also from India and works in technology — she was in the country on an H-4 visa, issued to spouses of those in the country on a temporary work visa. And people on H-4 visas were not authorized to work while here, regardless of their experience or education.
“I had to sit at home for six months, which was a bummer,” she says.
That changed in 2015, when the Obama administration implemented the Employment Authorization for Certain H-4 Dependent Spouses, a rule that allows the spouses of people on high-skill, non-immigrant visas (the H-1B) who are awaiting permanent residency to work while they are in the United States.
Now not only is Vedamati happy and fulfilled as a teacher — with students at Castilleja high school, Evergreen Valley College, Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley — but she is also filling a much-needed role in the United States, which faces a serious teacher shortage, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). California alone is projected to have a shortfall of more than 33,000 math and science teachers in the next decade. “It gives me happiness every day to see my students progressing. I wouldn’t choose to do it any other way,” Vedamati says.
It’s a waste of talent for me and, for the United States too, to let me sit at home.
Soon, however, she could be sitting at home again, leaving her schools scrambling for a replacement. In the fall of 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced it planned to revoke the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) for people on H-4 visas. The proposed change is currently under internal OMB review, though the public comment period is expected to open soon. If the revocation proceeds, it could take effect as early as August.
“It’s a huge setback. It’s really heartbreaking,” says Vedamati, who notes that the United States invested in her education for six years while she got her PhD. in oceanography. “It’s a waste of talent for me, and for the United States, too, to let me sit at home.”
Vedamati joins more than 90,000 spouses on an H-4 visa who have received an Employment Authorization Document. Three-quarters of these H-4 EAD holders are gainfully employed, and most are in highly skilled positions that would be difficult to fill with domestic workers due to low-unemployment rates in their fields, according to a recent cost-benefit analysis. The authors, two independent economists, found that rescinding the H-4 EAD would likely not add jobs for American workers, as the executive order behind it intended; by contrast, it would likely stymy business growth and, in turn, reduce Americans’ employment and wages. Furthermore, forcing these skilled workers to sit at home would reduce U.S. GDP by an estimated $7.5 billion per year; cost the federal government an estimated $1.9 billion in annual tax payments; and reduce state and local tax coffers by some $530 million annually.
For her part, Vedamati would like to be able to continue teaching. “Having my students in front of me is what drives me. It all pays off when I see them so motivated and inspired,” she says “Taking away the H-4 EAD would be a huge blow to my career and my mission to educate the younger generation.”
“The future looks bleak,” she adds. “I really don’t know what to do.”