Jansi Kumar immigrated from India to the United States in 2016 because of a promise. She would be allowed to work.
Her husband was already living in America on an H-1B visa — the type companies like Microsoft use to hire international talent. Spouses of H-1B visa holders typically receive H-4 visas but historically those did not allow them to earn an income in the country. That changed in 2015 when an executive order from President Barack Obama gave H-4 visa holders whose spouses are in line for green cards the ability to apply for employment authorization documents (EAD).
That policy change convinced Kumar. She joined her husband in Seattle and started working as a technical recruiter.
“The only reason I came to the U.S. was because I knew the EAD was there and I would be able to work,” she said. “If it was not there I would have asked my spouse to come back to India or relocate to Canada or any other location.”
Now, employment authorization for H-4 visa holders is on the chopping block. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security said it plans to rescind the Obama-era policy allowing H-4s to work, though DHS has delayed the rule-changing process several times.
If her work authorization is revoked, Kumar and her husband plan to leave the U.S.
“I don’t think I could see myself not working,” she said. “All the women in my family have been independent people. I see myself as a very independent person. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t work.”
Kumar’s story is not unique. Thousands of people like her immigrated to the U.S. with spouses on skilled work visas under the expectation that they too would be authorized to continue their careers. But a series of policy changes tied to President Donald Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order has many families who came to the U.S. to work in the tech industry questioning whether they want to remain here.
Many of them cite increased delays in the amount of time it takes to process employment authorization documents. In the past, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was required to process those applications within 90 days. But the Buy American, Hire American order rescinded the 90-day rule, which means applicants are now waiting six months or more to receive their documents.
The changes are part of the administration’s effort to streamline and reform work visa programs and ensure that American workers are the top priority. Some of the delays can also be attributed to an increased volume of applications.
Kumar doesn’t want to leave the U.S. and she’s doing everything she can to convince the government to keep H-4 work authorization intact. She co-founded an advocacy group on Facebook called SaveH4EAD which has grown to 6,000 members. Kumar said she and other members of the group spend at least an hour and a half each day speaking with their representatives and advocating on the issue.
Kirsten Eklund, an immigration attorney with MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, said the process to rescind the H-4 work authorization rule could start as early as this month.
“You’re talking about 27,000-plus people no longer having that benefit going forward,” she said.
USCIS is “considering a number of policy and regulatory changes to carry out the President’s Buy American, Hire American Executive Order, including a thorough review of employment-based visa programs,” according to Sharon Rummery, a public affairs officer for the agency.
“USCIS is committed to reforming employment-based immigration programs so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible,” she said.
Kumar is waiting to see whether the Trump administration follows through on its promise to end H-4 work authorization. But others have already made that difficult decision to leave.
The last straw
Helen was working as an employment attorney and living in the United Kingdom with her family when her husband received a job offer to join a large Seattle-area tech company. The new employer would sponsor her husband for an L1 visa, which allows highly skilled international talent to work in the U.S. Since spouses of L1 visa holders are also allowed to work in the country with the proper documentation, they decided to take the plunge and continue both of their careers in America. That was back in 2015, when the 90-day rule was still in effect.
Helen, who asked GeekWire not to use her last name because of her husband’s employment status, received an offer for a temporary position with the same big tech company where her husband worked in 2017. But her employment authorization documents (EAD) expired just two weeks after she started the new gig. That meant she had to put the job on hold for four months until it could be renewed. Her application to expedite the process was denied.
She was finally able to start the job in January. A few months later, the company offered her a permanent position. She was eager to take it but she was staring down the barrel of another long wait for employment documents. Her husband’s visa was coming up for renewal, which meant she had to start the application process all over again.
“It’s infuriating and degrading and the thought of going through this process [again] is frankly not one we can be bothered to do,” Helen said.
Faced with another false start to her career and aging parents back home who needed care, Helen and her family decided to move to Ireland. She still hadn’t received her employment authorization documents by the time she left the country on June 20.
“It makes me feel like they just don’t want us as workers in America but I think it’s just ridiculously bad business,” Helen said.
Later she added, “Why on earth if they’re giving us the right to work, aren’t they actually enabling us to work and pay tax? We’re here. Most of the people have families. We’re using schools and roads and other things that general taxes pay for.”
Holding out hope
Some are willing to endure delays and frustration because of the promise that the American economy offers. Take Sarah, who asked to have her name changed because of her employment authorization status. Like Helen, she and her husband moved to the U.S. in 2015 after he received a job offer under a skilled work visa. Her plan was to start a consulting company.
“It was a huge part of our adventure in life to relocate here, me to start my business, have more time as a family, enjoy all that Seattle has to offer as well as the career opportunities,” she said.
Sarah did start her business when they arrived and then took some time off in 2016 when she became pregnant. By the time she was ready to return, the immigration landscape had changed. She applied for her documents in June 2017 and didn’t receive them until May of this year, though she admits part of the delay was due to a form error.
“It felt really personal,” she said. “It felt like I wasn’t wanted here. I wasn’t allowed to work here even though I was really willing and had made a lot of sacrifices to be here and to work and be of service. When the visa came through, I realized it hadn’t been about that. It’s not personal. It was the system. It was political.”
Politics and bureaucracy
It’s difficult to gauge how much of this glue in the system can be attributed to a political agenda versus simple bureaucracy. Doug Rand — co-founder of immigration startup Boundless and an Obama White House alumnus — says it’s likely a little of both.
“There’s an innocent explanation for these wait times, which have been going up for years now as volume has increased,” he said. “At the same time, it’s no secret that the current administration wants many kinds of immigration applications to receive much greater scrutiny, which can create further delays.”
That scrutiny is a pillar of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda. The federal government is concerned with work-visa programs that aren’t tightly regulated because its ultimate goal is to preserve jobs for American workers.
“The rationale from the administration’s perspective is that these are unrestricted employment authorizations that potentially — if you’re talking about Buy American, Hire American — these EADs have no other types of restrictions on them,” said Eklund, the immigration attorney. “There’s no cap, there’s no lottery. There’s no restrictions on where you’re employed.”
Whatever the root causes, there’s a clear effect on people like Helen. Just before she left the U.S., she received a request for additional information on her EAD application. She believes the information was erroneously requested because it was related to a missing answer on a question required for a different category of work authorization than the one she applied for. Helen said the application had been reviewed by immigration attorneys. An employment lawyer herself, she also personally verified the form was correct.
“To me, it felt like a delay tactic, but perhaps I’m wrong,” Helen said. “Let’s just say my interactions with the Irish authorities so far have been incomparably smoother and quicker than with the U.S.”