Right to work? In Silicon Valley, visa fight as symbol of blocked American dream.

Spouses of H-1B visa workers, whose work permits may be revoked in June by the Trump administration, say they are being unfairly targeted and have a right to earn a living. So do we, say laid-off US tech workers, accusing companies of abusing the visa system to lock them out of jobs.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Kalpna Sengar, a sales force administrator for Google, speaks on April 16 in Sunnyvale, Calif., about her fear of losing her H-4 EAD work visa. Ms. Sengar, originally from India, joined her husband, a software developer, in the US in 2014. H-4 EAD visa holders are in limbo now that the Trump administration has suggested it may rescind the visas.

Anu Mahendran didn’t quite have a panic attack when she learned that the Trump administration might revoke work permits for spouses of foreign workers.

But she came close.

“I was shivering,” she says. “I went through phases where you’re just sitting there, nervous, not knowing what to do and what’s going to happen.”

Ms. Mahendran, who immigrated to the US from India in 2007, is a senior manager at NetApp, a Sunnyvale, Calif., data services provider. Her legal ability to work – and thus help her husband provide for their 11-month-old son and pay their mortgage – rests on an Obama-era program that grants employment authorization documents, or EADs, to spouses of skilled workers here on H-1B visas.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services has been considering revoking the program as part of President Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, signed in the fall. The agency reiterated its intent in a letter released this week from USCIS director Lee Francis Cissna to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley.

The change, set for June, would make it illegal for tens of thousands of mostly Indian women to work in the US until their husbands receive their green cards and are granted permanent resident status. A massive backlog in green card petitions, however, means that families of H-1B holders could stay in limbo for years.

For Indian nationals like Mahendran’s husband, who make up the greatest share of H-1B petitions, the wait for permanent residency could take a decade or more.

“By the time he gets a green card, I’ll be ready to retire,” Mahendran says.  

H-4 EADs serve as the latest front in a broader, intensifying clash on immigration playing out increasingly along party lines, policy analysts say. On the one hand are those who say the US needs to further open its doors to immigrants to cement its place in the global economy. On the other, those who would see a more secure border and put American workers first. The conflict has erupted most visibly on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have repeatedly failed to agree on even narrow actions related to immigration. It has also emerged online and among the public, as advocates for each side – many of whom, like Mahendran, are personally affected – band together in an effort to clear their paths to the American dream.

At stake, they say, is the future of US immigration policy – and whether or not it’s possible to create an equitable, stable system.

“Keeping thousands of people on this very strict temporary visa for this long a time is not fair. In my mind the H-4 EAD was kind of a merited Band-Aid on the situation,” says Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who recently co-authored a brief on the issue.

“But it’s hard to answer what should be done because there are good arguments on both sides,” she adds. “It is a mess.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
For Shaunaki Bharne, losing her job at Sears Holdings would be devastating. Even worse is the prospect of choosing between giving up work to be able to stay in the US with her husband, a Silicon Valley tech worker on an H-1B visa, or returning to India without her husband so she can pursue her career. With the Trump administration's plan to revoke work authorizations for spouses like her, Ms. Bharne might soon face that choice. "We are being punished for being married to an H-1B holder," she says. Now the 28-year-old is part of a group of advocates, mostly Indian women, fighting to keep the rule in place. "I don't know what the future holds," she says. "But if I don't fight for myself no one else will fight for me."

'I should be able to find work'

John Donaldson never thought he’d be out of a job. A software engineer in his 50s, Mr. Donaldson – known to friends as J.D. – developed applications for 30 years before the utility company he worked for fired him in 2011.

At first he was optimistic. He wasn’t young, but he had experience.

Nearly two years of “pounding the pavement,” as he calls it – meeting with recruiters, going to interviews, and waiting to hear back – yielded nothing. Donaldson began to wonder if something else was going on. Ageism, maybe: “People half my age were interviewing me,” he says. He also noticed that more of his interviewers, and a growing share of the workers in his field, seemed to be immigrants on H-1B visas.

Today, six years after losing his job and long after the unemployment benefits have run out, Donaldson is convinced he’s a casualty of a bloated immigration system. In his mind, tech companies are not only putting H-1B holders before native US workers in their recruitment efforts; they’re also flooding the US labor market with immigrants who are willing to take lower pay, pushing down wages and edging Americans out of the competition.

The H-4 EAD, he says, takes that even further, giving spouses of H-1B workers unrestricted access to the job market.

“It’s gotten way out of control,” Donaldson says, sitting outside an Oakland coffee shop one April morning. “I don't think it’s foreign and wrong that countries have borders and that they can protect them and perhaps give some kind of priority to their citizens versus immigrants when it comes to hiring.”

Multiple studies over decades show that allowing US companies to hire highly-skilled immigrants actually comes with benefits: It raises productivity levels, diversifies innovation, and helps companies hire for hard-to-fill positions in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. It’s like baseball, says Chad Sparber, an economist at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. “You need nine players, and if you don’t have all nine then nobody gets to play at all,” he says. “There are advantages to having access to this talent so that everybody can participate.”

Immigrant advocates also say that the labor-market isn’t a zero-sum game – that not every job that goes to an immigrant is one taken away from a native US worker. Jobs in the economy are not just those that are newly created, they point out. Some are existing ones that open up when someone retires. They add that those who started on H-1B visas but ultimately became US citizens shouldn’t count in analyses of immigrants’ effects on American workers, since naturalized citizens are Americans.

“Every May and June, people graduate from high school and college,” says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy in Washington. “We don’t consider it a bad thing that they’re entering the labor force.”

Data on employers relying heavily on the H-1B program, however, suggests there are some companies who use it to fill mid-level technology positions, as opposed to hiring only the best and the brightest. “If a profession has a labor surplus, producing lots of new graduates in that profession IS a problem,” writes Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis, who has studied immigration in the tech sector for more than two decades. “In fact, occasionally a responsible university will indeed reduce the size of such a program.”

Back in Oakland, Donaldson wards off the morning chill with a cup of coffee and a heavy biker jacket. All he wants, he says, is to be able to work in the field he loves and hold onto his home here, where he’s lived for half his life – though he thinks he could find work as a software engineer outside of Silicon Valley.

“But I shouldn’t have to move,” he says. “This is the high-tech capital of the world, OK? I should be able to find work here.”

'What wrong did we do?'

Mahendran can’t imagine leaving the Bay Area either, much less the US. In the decade since she’s come to this country, she has earned a master’s degree, met and married her husband, and had a baby. “This is the life I built. This is the life I earned,” she says, almost pleading. “This is home.”

But if her work authorization is revoked, Mahendran also can’t imagine staying. Not if she can’t put her skills to use – she has a bachelor’s in computer science and an MBA – or contribute to the family income for the years they’ll need to wait for her husband’s green card.

“If you take the choice to [be a stay-at-home mom], then it’s different. But here you’re being forced to sit at home,” Mahendran says. “If worse comes to worst, I think we’ll have to leave.”

There are practical considerations, too, for those who’ve been out of the job market for an extended period. When the Obama administration granted the work authorization in 2015, Kalpna Sengar had already spent five years without a job. The gap in her résumé made her a less desirable candidate in her original field: the intersection of biotechnology and human resources. “Nobody entertained me,” she recalls. It was the fall of 2017 by the time she’d collected the right credentials to interview and land a job as a Salesforce administrator with Google.

The notion of once more having to wait years to go back to work horrifies her. “I worked really hard from 2015 to make myself educated again, going to classes, taking online courses, studying, and everything. And now if this rule gets passed, I'll be again jobless,” Ms. Sengar says. “It feels like going back to square one.”

Analysts say that when it comes to immigration, much of the trouble finds its roots not in the Department of Homeland Security, which houses USCIS, or even in the White House, but on Capitol Hill. The last time Congress came to a meaningful bipartisan agreement on immigration was in 1986. These days even narrow deals end in deadlock. For the third administration in a row, most of the movement on the issue has come by way of executive order or litigation. The H-4 EAD dispute will likely go the same way.

“It leads to legal uncertainty,” says Matthew Kolodziej, an immigration attorney at Jia Law Group in New York. That’s bad for the economy, he says, “and it’s negative for our national identity as a country of immigrants.”

“Because Congress hasn’t addressed our immigration laws in so long, the situation becomes increasingly dire,” adds Ms. Pierce at the Migration Policy Institute. “It also becomes more difficult for Congress to address it because some impossible questions have come up, like: What do you with 100,000 women on these employment authorization documents?”

“It’s circular,” she adds.

For those caught in the middle, there’s deep dismay toward American leadership. “I’m not blaming Indians for coming over. Who doesn’t want to be here?” Donaldson says. “I’m blaming the federal government.”

There’s also a sense of disillusionment – even betrayal – with the promise America represents.

“You work hard, you study hard, and good things happen to you in America,” Mahendran says. “I’ve seen people come here from other countries, they get their green card in five months. We followed the system. We’re equally qualified.

“Why us?” she asks. “What wrong did we do?” 

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