If you are South Asian American, you will likely run into the H-1B as you start uncovering your family’s beginnings in the U.S. The iconic visa, reserved for highly educated workers with specialized skills in STEM, forms the “founding lore” of our diaspora, according to a 2015 Smithsonian exhibit. The exhibition was put together by Indian-American artists whose parents had immigrated through the H-1B. It’s interesting to see my own childhood experience in a museum — maybe because I am not yet 30.
In our collective community, a handful of the youngest children might be third generation, but most of us are first or second generation. As a whole, we have not been here much more than two generations, yet we try to distance ourselves from the reality of our parents’ immigration experiences. Perhaps we want to put it behind us because it brings up painful memories: the path to citizenship through the H-1B is challenging and isolating.
First, you must land a job in the U.S. with a company that is willing to sponsor your H-1B visa. It’s a competitive visa, and only limited amounts are awarded through a lottery system (the H-1B cap for 2017-2018 is 85,000 petitions). If you make it through, you are allowed to work in the company that sponsored you for three to six years. After that, your company needs to file an extension for you. Of course, this depends on how much the company needs you. You still cannot take any legal steps toward permanent residence or citizenship — you need your employer (or a close family member who is already a citizen) to file a green card petition. Because the process is lengthy, expensive and complicated, it’s mostly only large tech firms that take this step. After five years on a green card, you can apply for citizenship.
That’s just the surface — there are layers of consequence underneath. Take my own case. My dad first came to America on an H-1B in 1990. My mother and I soon followed as his dependents, through an H4 visa. My parents had worked their way to citizenship before I was 18 (which meant that I automatically became a citizen as well) but the childhood I remember was filled with uncertainty and anxiety. The most common building blocks of an American Dream — taking a loan and buying a house — had to be put off until the future, or just the next couple years, was a little more certain. We could only wait and see if my father’s visa would be extended, if he would be sponsored for permanent residence, if the applications for citizenship would go through. We waited more than a decade before we could live with some normalcy.
There is also the psychological toll of living as a dependent on an H4 — a nightmarish situation that disproportionately affects Indian women (who are married to H1B holders). Under an H4, you cannot work, have a bank account, or a social security number. For my mother, who began a career at the age of 21 and loved her work, it was an abrupt and cruel change in circumstance to find herself in her mid-thirties and under a form of house arrest. Women who have gone through the same experience report it as phase of darkness, depression and despair.
The folly of handicapping a qualified workforce in this manner was addressed by the Obama administration in 2015, and employment authorization documents (EADs) were made available to H4 holders who had reached the stage of green card approval along with their spouses. The Trump administration intends to reverse that law. As of yet they have deferred making a final decision, leaving almost 100,000 spouses of H-1B holders in limbo. We do know that this administration is seeking to reduce the number of H-1Bs altogether, and have doubled the number of requests for evidence (RFEs) issued for each round of petitions.
SAAFBA’s stance on this issue is that it needs to be watched carefully. We might think we have put a safe distance between ourselves and immigration woes, but by leaving changes to policy open-ended, while simultaneously giving more power to immigration enforcement agencies, the Trump administration is creating slippery holes. Talk to your extended family, your friends and your co-workers — chances are, you are not so far removed from the issue yourself. We must decide if we are going to be passive or active participants in the country that we, or our parents, struggled to gain citizenship in. And in doing so, we must ask ourselves what our ideas of core American values — particularly in regards to immigration — really are.