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Indian women on H4 visas eager to get back to work

Posted on May 12, 2014
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Reaction to the news that H4 visa holders could finally get to enter the workforce has been enthusiastic.

The American Bazaar spoke to four women, all of whom were forced to leave their homes and jobs behind in India to live in unemployment in the US. Now, on the cusp of possibly being able to work again – some after a gap of nearly a decade – the women generously shared their stories.

Shibiliy Shafeela has been a housewife for just about one year. She was employed by Tata Consultancy Services in India from December 2005 through January of 2010, at which point her husband came to the US for work, bringing her along.

Because her husband was brought over on an L1 visa, Shafeela came on an L2, allowing her limited work authorization for a period of three years. At the conclusion of that three-year term, she applied for an extension – that, however, was rejected in July of last year.

As a result, with no visa left to her name, Shafeela was forced to go back to India for a short period. She eventually returned to the US in September, but on an H4 visa, as her husband – who currently works for ABS Consulting – had been transferred to an H-1B visa. Because of her H4 designation, she has been unable to work, and is raring at the chance to get back into the workforce.

“I had to resign from TCS because of my visa, which won’t allow me to work here,” she explained. “But there were personal reasons behind it as well. I have a young son, who needed my attention because he was not well, so even if I had the authorization to work I’m not sure that I would have done so.”

However, Shafeela has several friends who have struggled with not being able to work under H4 designation, and said that although this new provision would only allow select H4 holders the ability to work, it’s a “a good first step” in the right direction.

Mary James was working for an insurance outfit in India from 2005-2007. She and her husband immigrated to the US when he came for work, employed by a division of Microsoft – him on L1, her on L2.

However, her husband’s division was acquired by another company, forcing his visa designation to change from L1 to H-1B, and causing James to become an H4 visa, dependent on her husband. For James, who had spent her first couple of months in the US working in Connecticut, the transition from a full-time work week to unemployment was jarring.

“It was really bad for me,” James, a mother of one, said. “After my priority date got pushed back as well, I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to work for a very long time, if ever.” Understandably, James called the news of possible H4 work authorization “amazing.”

“I would like to work and help my family, and I like to use my resources to help with the betterment of this country,” she explained. “I personally would like to be working because it helps me and my surroundings grow, and I know I have a lot to contribute.”

One of the problems facing many H4 holders is that, having been in the US for so long with an H4 visa, they’ve been out of the work force for many years. H4 holders – the vast majority of which are women who accompany their husbands to this country – have had to transition from working women to housewives at the drop of a hat.

Such a problem faces Hema Raghunathan.

Raghunathan holds an M.B.A. from the prestigious Institute of Productivity and Management (IPM) in Lucknow. She spent a number of years working in India, doing marketing work for companies like NIIT Ltd. and SII. However, once her husband – an employee with Satyam Computer Services – was transferred to a posting with the World Bank, both Raghunathan and he immigrated.

“He came on H-1B, so I became H4,” explained Raghunathan, “but I wasn’t too upset about it at first. I had a young child, and then another later on, so I had to care for them. But most of all, we thought that the process to obtain [a] Green Card would only take three or four years, but it’s now been nine years and movement is still slow.”

Raghunathan said that she’s tempering her expectations about the H4 proposal.

“We’ve been hearing things like this for years now, and nothing has ever happened,” she said. “It’s certainly good news, but I think people need to stay calm until it finally comes into effect and H4 [holders] begin working.”

Most importantly, said Raghunathan, she knows she’ll have to start essentially from the ground-up, as she will have spent a clean decade out of work by the time she gets an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), if she does at all.

“I know that I will have to start from scratch, go for training and things like that,” she said, “because I’ve been out of the workforce for so long. I most likely will change my line of work, but honestly, work is work. As long as I’m doing some kind of work, I’ll be happy.”

Another woman from India, who chose to remain unidentified for this story, disclosed that she grew up in Saudi Arabia before moving to India for her education. She worked in IT development for two years before coming to the US in 2003. Sidelined by her visa status, her career has been immobile for over a decade.

“It’s a lonely feeling,” she said, “to come to US with no freedom, no friends, and not being able to work. It was a big, big drawback because you don’t have the independence you need. You have to stay home all day, and it’s a much bigger fall-off for people who were working and suddenly have to go to this unemployed life.”

She explained that when her two children were younger, she had her hands full raising them. But now, as they are 10 and 5 years old, her time has freed up again, providing her with the need to get back into a job.

“The queue for these things are so long, though,” she said. “Obviously it would be nice to work again, but I’ll wait and see. Hopefully something positive comes out of all this.”

The wait for these women to work again could go into effect as early as in the next four months. It will first need to be published in the Federal Register, followed by a period of 60 days in which comments are taken from those who are for and against it.

Then, there will be a 30-day waiting period for EAD cards to be issued, which would benefit an estimated 97,000 H4 visa holders this year itself, and some 30,000 annually over the next few years.

“These individuals are American families in waiting,” Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said when announcing the new provisions. “Many tire of waiting for green cards and leave the country to work for our competition. The fact is we have to do more to retain and attract world-class talent to the United States, and these regulations put us on a path to do that.”

For H4 holders around the country, the light at the end of the tunnel is not just visible, but shining a little bit brighter.

Deepak Chitnis

May 08, 2014

Indian women on H4 visas eager to get back to work

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