From the street, you can hear children at play. Inside the one-story house in Fremont, California, a fish tank gurgles by the front door. A plastic bin filled with Legos sits in the sun room. Renuka Sivarajan, 37, runs a home daycare here. Her path to this point has been like the stock market of late.
When Sivarajan first came to the US from India, in 2003, she worked for a tech company in Phoenix. After she married, she commuted each weekend to the San Francisco area, where her husband worked as an engineer. When she became pregnant with her son in 2007, she moved to California, giving up her job—and work permit. For three consecutive years, she applied for the same work visa that her husband holds, an H-1B. Each year, she was not picked in the random lottery that allocates these visas. She became depressed.
“There would be days when I would be so dull that I wouldn’t even want to play with my child, my own child,” she says. Sivarajan decided to go back to school, completing courses in early childhood education at a local community college. In 2015, after a years-long push from activists, the Obama administration allowed spouses of certain H-1B holders to obtain work permits. Sivarajan opened her daycare. More recently, she thought about expanding outside her home, to a new center. Then, in December, the Trump administration indicated it may eliminate the work permits for spouses.
“There are days when I can’t sleep properly because it bothers me,” Sivarajan says. “It bothers me to think about the future.” Without a job, she worries about holding onto the house, paying bills. She doesn’t know if finances will force the family to move back to India.
“Legally, I’m not allowed to work if I don’t have a work permit, which means all the 16 children whose families who are dependent on me right now, I have to let them all go. They have to find another provider for themselves. My three employees will lose their jobs,” she says. “Thinking about it makes me sad.”
The Trump administration says it plans to soon end the program allowing Sivarajan and more than 100,000 others to work in the US. Called H-4 EAD, or employment authorization document, the permit is available to the spouses of workers on H-1B visas who are in line for permanent US residency. Many tech companies sponsor and apply for H-1B visas, which are given to high-skilled foreign workers, often engineers.
The Obama administration started the program in 2015 partly due to a backlog in the green card process. Because of a per-country cap, people from populous countries such as India and China must wait years before gaining residency. That also meant spouses had been waiting years before they were eligible to work.
When it established the rule, US Citizenship and Immigration Services said the program would benefit the American economy. Last fall, USCIS indicated it was considering revoking the rule as part of President Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order.
Shah Peerally, an immigration attorney in Newark, California thinks the government will end the program. “I hope I am wrong, but I think it’s on the way,” he said. The government is still facing a 2015 lawsuit from a group alleging the program is illegal and takes jobs from US citizens. (The group is represented by attorneys from two organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as hate groups.)
The Trump administration initially suggested it wanted to end the H-4 EAD program by February, but recently delayed that plan, saying it needed to conduct a new economic analysis. It now hopes to issue a proposal in June. Peerally thinks the administration has already made up its mind. He predicts that unless a lawsuit bogs down the process, the program “will be gone, basically in the next one or two years.” USCIS said in a statement that it is undergoing a “thorough review of employment-based visa program” and said it has not made a final decision.
Meanwhile, in Congress, Senator Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah), introduced an immigration bill that would keep the H-4 EAD program in place. Tech companies have stayed largely quiet on the issue, but an industry group wrote to USCIS in support of the program.
In the last few months, holders of the work permit—a vast majority of whom are women, many with advanced degrees—have ramped up a social-media campaign. They’ve gone to congressional town hall meetings and lobbied members of Congress at their offices, encouraging them to pressure USCIS to halt the rule change and to protect the program through legislation such as Hatch’s. At a recent town hall meeting with US Representative Ro Khanna, (D-California), a staffer asked the several hundred in the crowd how many were affected by the H-4 visa issue. At least two-thirds of the auditorium stood up.
"Most of us are spouses who have not been able to work for so long," Sivarajan says. "And not all of us know how to advocate for ourselves."
In conversations, several visa holders in Silicon Valley and one in Georgia speak of uncertainty prompted by the potential repeal of the policy, and question the government’s logic. Because of these work permits, people have bought homes, and moved around the country. Children have been brought into the world. From a range of backgrounds and professions, the visa holders talk of the sacrifices they’ve made, their hopes for the future, and the dignity of work, its inseparability from identity.
Madan is a recruiter for a staffing company in San Jose. Every day, she helps Americans find work as cashiers, baristas, and clerks. We’re not talking high-profile tech jobs. “Most of them are looking for jobs in retail, restaurants, like, you know, for instance, Starbucks, Macy’s, something like that,” she says.
Madan came to the US in 2015, then spent a year at home before her work authorization came through. “When I got my worker permit authorization, it’s like, you know, ‘I got my wings back,’” she says. “I will work to give back something to this country because they’ve given me this great opportunity to work,” she decided. So she volunteered for a year at nonprofit news company as a recruiter. Money was secondary. First came identity. But when she and her husband moved in 2017 from New York to California, mammon reared its ugly head. “God, this area is too expensive!” she realized. So she got a job.
Madan looks back, sadly, on the year when the government did not allow her to work. “The whole year I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “Since I was in India I have been working since I was 18. So sitting at home, devoting my life to kitchen? Household chores? That’s not what I ever dreamed of. I’m a free bird.”
"I have a plan, that probably 10 years from now I would have a separate organization where there would be no fees charged when it comes to looking for a job, or looking for a candidate. It would be a free service. For everybody. Irrespective of what country you’re coming from. So I want to do something. I don’t know. It’s just something in my mind. (Laughs.) But I want to do something. Where people have free access to do their job. I mean, of course, there are staffing companies that make money. I don’t want to do that."
Khanapurkar came to the US in 2004. She got her second masters degree at Virginia Tech in analytical chemistry; her first, in India, was in organic chemistry. In Boston, she worked on an H-1B visa for almost six years as a scientist at a biotech firm involved in cancer research. After her son was born in 2013, she quit her job, which changed her visa status to an H-4. The couple moved to Georgia for its lower cost of living. Khanapurkar had a hard time finding a position as a scientist on an H-1B there. By 2016, she had had another child because the new H-4 work permit program meant the couple could again have two incomes. She switched careers. Now Khanapurkar works as a project manager for a workflow-solutions company whose clients do a lot of printing, such as the Boston Globe. Another client is the insurance company known as American Family.
"We are looking at options. Should we move to Canada, or should we move to New Zealand? Or any other country that’s accepting of us? Right now we just feel not accepted here. Like we are not wanted here. And we are, you know, contributing so much to the economy and being legal citizens, legal immigrants. In spite of that, it’s the addition of being looked down upon. It’s not a good feeling, you know? I mean, I’ve been here so long, I just thought, ‘These people are mine.’ And now people aren’t accepting me. It’s not a good feeling. I told my husband yesterday, if this is how we’re feeling and this is how we’re going to be feeling every single day of our lives, living in fear, never know when our visas will be revoked, never know when we’ll be accepted here legally, in spite of being legal, we might as well go to a place where people are accepting of us."
In India, Sharma worked in insurance. She thought when she came to the US in 2014 that she would be able to find an employer willing to sponsor her for an H-1B visa. She soon realized it was next to impossible without being in tech. (Most petitions for these types of visas are for workers in STEM fields.) Sharma sought to study, but didn’t have the money. When the work permits became available in 2015, she had to return to India for four months for a family crisis, and is still waiting to receive her H-4 EAD. Her dream is to open a restaurant.
"I was totally independent when I was in India. Now I am dependent on everything on my husband. Let’s say if I want to buy a gift for my husband on his birthday, on Valentine’s Day, I cannot. Because I don’t have my own bank account. I don’t have my own debit card, credit card. I don’t have anything. So for his gift, I have to ask for money. From him. He’s a wonderful guy, that’s not the problem. But it hurts my dignity. It hurts my independence. I have dreams too. I have skills. I want to realize it for my own sake, for my own career, for the economy as well. And we love America as much as we love our home country."