Trump’s Senseless War on Working Immigrant Women

The administration’s decision to nix work permits for immigrant spouses sends a very loud message: in America, immigrants of color need not apply.

Manisha Prasad is a far cry from Donald Trump’s imagined immigrant. When she moved from India to the United States in 2007, she did so legally. With a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s in business administration, and a resume full of financial and educational experience, she is clearly not a “bad hombre.” And Prasad, who founded a preschool and daycare, is certainly not “taking our jobs.”

“I started my own business,” she told me. “One of the parents said that if I was not here, she would not be able to work.”

Yet Prasad and her business are likely to be two of the latest victims in Trump’s ongoing war on immigration. Prasad’s husband has an H-1B visa, which is designed to allow skilled, college-educated foreigners to live and work in the U.S. legally. Prasad has an H-4 visa, the “dependent” visa given out to the spouses and children of H-1B holders. For decades, these spouses were not permitted to work in the United States, until a 2015 Obama administration decision enabled many of them to receive Employment Authorization Documents, or EADs. But in December 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to reverse that policy.

Prasad is one of the roughly 100,000 people who capitalized on the Obama-era rule change and got an EAD—and who will be banished from the workforce if the program is eliminated. Experts believe that, like their spouses, most of these individuals are highly educated and highly skilled. Over 90 percent of them are women.

They are, in other words, exactly the kinds of “talented” immigrants that polling suggests Americans want—including Republicans. So why is the administration trying to stop them from getting jobs?

In an emailed statement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson Michael Bars cited Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order as the reason why the government may stop issuing or renewing EADs. “USCIS is focused on safeguarding the integrity of our immigration system and ensuring its faithful execution so that the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers are protected,” he wrote.

But there’s no reason to think getting rid of EADs for immigrant spouses will do anything to help the American worker. In fact, a host of studies indicate that immigration helps the U.S. economy. Immigrants tend to contribute more to the economy than they take, and college-educated immigrants dramatically increase American innovation without displacing U.S. workers. Even if immigration were harming American employees, it’s difficult to see how a program whose participants make up less than 0.0007 percent of the U.S. workforce poses a threat.

Indeed, the Trump administration claims it wants to help immigrants like Prasad. The president has openly praised Canada’s practice of selecting immigrants on the basis of their education, employment history, wealth, and language skills. He has called for the U.S. to adopt something similar. “Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration and instead adopting a merit-based system will have many benefits,” Trump told Congress. “It will save countless dollars, raise workers’ wages, and help struggling families—including immigrant families—enter the middle class.”

Ending the spousal work permit belies that statement and gives further proof that what really matters for Trump isn’t what a potential immigrant knows how to do; it’s what he or she looks like. When Trump says he doesn’t want immigrants who don’t come from “places like Norway,” he’s not talking about skills. H-4 workers usually have college degrees. But they are overwhelmingly non-white, and no amount of education can change the color of their skin.

Trump may be targeting a very small program, but he is sending a very loud message: in America, immigrants of color need not apply.

The H1-B visa program, in its current form, was introduced as part of the bipartisan Immigration Act of 1990. The visa was designed to be temporary. Recipients could live and work in the United States for three years, renewing their visa once. Spouses and children could come on H-4 visas. Families who wanted to stay longer could upgrade to green cards, generally within several years.

For Indian immigrants, however, the pathway to permanent residency quickly became backlogged. Since 2001, more than fifty percent of all H-1B visas have been awarded to Indians, and they make up a disproportionate share of applicants for employment-based green cards. But of the 140,000 such green cards given out each year, only seven percent, or about 10,000, can go to individuals from any one nationality. As a result, getting one can take years. According to the most recent visa bulletin, Indian applicants from 2008 are just receiving their green cards now, and there are about 306,000 Indians still in the queue.

The backlog has created a variety of problems that successive governments have tried to patch. The Clinton administration, for example, allowed H-1B recipients waiting for overdue green cards to renew their visas multiple times, rather than just once. But that change did little to help the tens of thousands of Indian spouses who—caught in a growing queue—were stuck at home, unable to work legally.

“It’s a lot more than boring,” said Swarnali Ghosh Dastider, who came to the U.S. in 2002 and spent four years unemployed in between giving up her H-1B visa in 2010 and getting an EAD in 2015. “You’re completely tied down. You feel less than human.”

The EAD program is another partial fix. Only spouses with approved green card applications are eligible—that is, people who would have already become permanent residents if not for the bottleneck. Nevertheless, for Indians—who represent well over half of the immigrants impacted by the logjam—the program has been life changing. It enabled Prasad to start her preschool and daycare, and it allowed Ghosh Dastider, an architectural engineer, to find employment at both an architecture firm and at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It’s not just work,” Ghosh Dastider told me. “It’s an identity. It’s something I take pride in.”

As a result, the Trump administration’s plans have galvanized many Indian immigrants, who, as of this February, made up 94 percent of all EAD recipients. Permit holders are quick to point out how far they deviate from right-wing stereotypes about immigrants, citing their level of education and work experience. They reference studies that showcase the absurdity of their situation, including one by the libertarian CATO institute estimating that some Indian immigrants with postgraduate degrees could wait 151 years before becoming permanent residents. And as advocates make clear, unlike would-be refugees and undocumented immigrants, EAD holders are already legally entitled to be here.

“Giving H-4 EADs is the logical thing to do because your family is expected to stay in the United States,” said Parul Raizada, an EAD holder and bank analyst who is waiting for her green card. “Does it make sense to invest in us or to debilitate us?”

The impending rule change is forcing families already in the U.S. to reconsider whether they want to stay. Of the seven EAD holders I spoke with, all but one said they were debating whether to move out, a tortured calculation that requires weighing the costs of indefinite unemployment against years of investment in life in the U.S.

Ghosh Dastider said that the decision was especially agonizing because her children are U.S. citizens, which is true of many H-1B and H-4 visa recipients. If her family leaves, the kids “will have to be uprooted from their own country.”

The program’s end would also make it harder for companies to find skilled employees. A variety of business organizations, including the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently sent a letter to USCIS saying that eliminating EADs would hurt their operations. “In 2016, there were approximately 3.3 million science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) job openings posted online,” they wrote. “The H-4 rule is instrumental in allowing U.S. employers to fill these critical positions with qualified professionals.”

Roshan Revankar provides a case in point. A graduate of Oklahoma State University and a geothermal energy specialist, Revankar once managed a large, U.S.-based international organization that promotes geothermal energy. He quit his job in 2017 to move to California and live with his wife, also an Indian immigrant, which meant switching from an H-1B work visa to an H-4 spouse visa. But, thanks to the Obama administration EAD program, he was able to work as a consultant, including for his former employer, who still needed his expertise. Revankar was in the process of creating an alternative energy start-up when the Trump administration announced that it planned to end the program. The threat of losing his work permit put Revankar’s start-up plans on hold.

“I acquired this knowledge in the U.S.,” he said. “I’d hate to leave the U.S. and go to some other country and promote it there.”

Despite Trump’s staunch anti-immigrant rhetoric, almost all of the EAD recipients I interviewed had the same reaction to the administration’s decision: surprise.

“I knew that Trump was going after the illegal immigrants,” said Raizada. “I could never have imagined that he would go after the legal immigrants.”

It was a common refrain among H-1B and H-4 visa holders. They had come here legally. They had followed every rule and completed every process. They are highly skilled and educated, exactly the kinds of people the White House claims the immigration system should prioritize. So why are they still targets?

Many of the spouses I spoke to insisted that it was unintentional—that their predicament was the result of some big misunderstanding.

“They don’t see the damage,” hypothesized Rashi Bhatnagar, who runs an H-4 visa rights advocacy group. She attributes the policy shift to an overzealous crackdown on immigration “fraudsters” and a sincere but misguided belief that it would protect American jobs. Bhatnagar even expressed support for the general contours of Trump’s migration policies.

“I have nothing against this administration because they have been talking about a merit-based system,” she said.

Bhatnagar’s sentiments may seem surprising, but she isn’t alone. Indeed, most of the EAD recipients I spoke with are cautiously optimistic that, faced with the prospect of losing talent, the Trump administration will either change its mind about the program or find a different way to protect their jobs.

“If the administration really holds true to the fact that they want skilled immigrants, then I’m sure they’ll find a way around,” said Revankar. “H-4 EAD might not be the only way to do that, so even if H-4 EAD goes away, I feel a little more optimistic they will do the right thing.”

But past optimism about Trump—that rational advisors would check his most destructive impulses, that Congress would limit his most outrageous policies, that the xenophobic campaign was simply an election strategy—has been repeatedly dashed. The president promised a “Muslim ban,” and he has severely curtailed immigration from a number of Muslim majority nations. He called Syrian refugees a threat to the country, and the U.S. has effectively stopped accepting them. There is no border wall, but by ripping Latino children from their parents, Trump has made it clear that the U.S. is no country for non-white immigrants.

That Trump’s attack on spousal work permits is a deliberate attempt to keep foreigners out—rather than an accidental byproduct of his crackdown on “abuse” of the immigration system—is something that some H-4 EAD holders are starting to recognize.

“I’m not very confident or optimistic,” said Ghosh Dastider, when I asked her if she thought her work permit could be saved. “There was a letter supporting H-4 EAD with 132 congressional representatives’ signatures on it, but despite all of those, USCIS is saying the same thing.”

She is applying for permanent residency in Canada.

Daniel Block

Daniel Block is a fellow with The Caravan, an English-language magazine based in New Delhi, India.