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The US Finally Lifts the Curse of the ‘Golden Cage’ Visa

Twenty-three people from 12 different countries take the Oath of Allegiance to become US citizens at the Grand Canyon National Park on September 23, 2010. Photo from Flickr user Grand Canyon National Park. CC BY 2.0

People from 12 different countries take the Oath of Allegiance to become US citizens at the Grand Canyon National Park on September 23, 2010. Photo from Flickr user Grand Canyon National Park. CC BY 2.0

This article and radio report by Carol Hills for The World originally appeared on PRI.org on February 25, 2015, and is republished as part of a content-sharing agreement.

H-1B visas are among the most coveted tickets into the United States. Each year, the US government issues about 85,000 of them, mostly to highly skilled tech workers who settle in places like Silicon Valley. But the spouses of H-1B visa holders weren't allowed to work or forge their own lives in the US  — until now.

Listen to this story on PRI.org »

The Obama administration announced on Tuesday that it's tweaking the rules of the H-4 visa, the visa issued to spouses of H-1B holders, allowing some of them to work legally in the United States starting in May. Under the new rules, spouses will be eligible for an Employment Authorization Document and a Social Security card.

“I can be my real self. I will no longer be my husband's wife only,” says Neha Mahajan, who moved to the United States almost seven years ago when her husband was transferred from a job in New Delhi to a tech firm in New Jersey. “I can go out, open up my own bank account. I can open my own business if I want to. I can go and study if I want to. I mean, I'm not restricted anymore to be just a homemaker.”

It's not just a matter of work. Mahajan says she tried going back to school in New Jersey several years ago, but no one would give her a student loan because she lacked a social security number. “I literally do not have an identity here in the US because I am dependent on my spouse,” she says. “When they gave me an H-4 visa, they made sure I was dependent in the real sense.”

Mahajan has been involved in the effort to grant H-4 visa holders the right to work. Spouses of foreign workers are active on social media, with a Facebook page as well as a blog titled “H4 Visa, a Curse.”

Mahajan was a television news reporter back in India. She'd just taken a break to have a baby when her husband's company decided to relocate him to the United States. “I was going to accompany him because, after all, America is the land of dreams,” she says.

Someone mentioned to her that she wouldn't be able to work, but she didn't take it seriously. When she got to the United States and contacted people in media to start looking for a job, they were adamant: Employment, even an internship, was impossible without a work permit.

Her husband's H-1B visa was also out of the question for her. “I'm not a technical person,” she says. “I'm not a software engineer. That's not my background.” So she volunteered for an organization in New Jersey that sponsors an annual film festival “to keep myself alive, to keep my skills and education and my talent alive.” 

The government estimates that as many as 179,000 spouses of H-1B holders could apply for work permits in the first year, and 55,000 each year after. That's produced blowback from some critics that the spouses of foreign workers will take jobs away from Americans. Mahajan counters that she came as a legal immigrant and is already in the process of becoming an American citizen.

“I am your neighbor. I live in the same neighborhood,” Mahajan says. “Even though I don't earn, I pay my taxes. I wouldn't be taking any jobs from you. I may just become an entrepreneur and will be opening up my own business if I was allowed, which I am now. So I'm not just here to take away jobs.”

  • jakeleone

    Actually most H-1b visas are not used by tech originating companies.

    Most are used by Offshore Outsourcing companies.

    Every H-1b visa used by an Offshore Outsourcing companies, is used to remove jobs from the United States, in other words, for the most part, the H-1b Visa Federal Government program is used to destroy jobs in the United States.

    Southern California Edison is just one example, of the most typical case that H-1b visas are used in, and similarly among thousands of past cases, where the H-1b visa was used to force better qualified, more skilled American workers, to retrain their H-1b replacements.

    The reason why we run out of H-1b visas each year, is because Offshore Outsourcing companies take up all the available H-1b requests. This strategy of the Offshore Outsourcing company serves
    them well, because it discourages small local companies from even trying to obtain workers on an H-1b (and so more for the Offshore Outsourcing companies). And it allows them to get a huge number of visas for their ordinary workers (which are not especially talented, have no particular skill or capability, and are as interchangeable as bolts on a car).

    The net result is a huge monopoly granted to Offshore Outsourcing companies in the area of inexpensive, commodity, contract tech worker.

    Although I agree that spouses of those who are actually trying to become citizens, should be allowed to work in the U.S. There is absolutely no reason to believe that these new workers are any more skilled than ordinary U.S. workers. It is more likely that many of the non-working spouses will take up ordinary assistant, retail clerk jobs, since they did not qualify for an H-1b visa. Unless they of course use their main connection to get a job at the company where their spouses work, and so take up a valuable starting position thanks to nepotism.

    The country needs to know that half of our graduating STEM class will never find a job in a STEM field. The shortage of STEM talent is an industry hyped myth.

  • Sociologist studying H4 visas

    this is a lopsided story that makes no attempt to get inputs from experts. it plays the same trumpet as everyone else is and it is very disappointing that Carol Hill would produce such an ill-informed story. The proposed legislation brings about miniscule changes and deserves a more indepth analysis

  • julie

    Very one sided, says nothing about the people who loss their job to this program. There is much misery on the other side.
    If it said, can work if.. not replacing an American citizen , ok , but it does not.

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