Depression and health scares: In Donald Trump's America, H4 visa's uncertain fate driving H1B workers' spouses over the edge

Published: 03/06/2018

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Vinod Kumar's wife was having an “active cardiac arrest” when he called the author on Sunday morning, tears streaming down his face, from the emergency room of a Pennsylvania hospital. Vinod’s wife, a registered nurse on an H4 visa in the US, is hooked up to intravenous fluids and multiple monitors, the couple’s children shuffle around trying to be of help to their mother while Vinod tried to get his thoughts in order amid the surrounding personal chaos.

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“I am tired of being strong,” he says sobbing as he paces the small room on a cold morning, his eyes red, his face tired and his anger crackling through the phone line.

“I want you to see this, that’s why I made a video call, I hope you don’t mind…All this is thanks to the (Trump) administration!,” he said, mixing sarcasm with sobs as he turned the phone around so I can see his wife in hospital robes lying on a bed and the couple's two sons trying to get through their school work in a corner.

Vinod is 48, his wife is 46, the couple has been in the US since the year of the Great Crash. Vinod got here in 2008 on an H1B, his wife joined him in 2009 on an H4 dependent visa and "came to grips slowly with the reality" that H4 spouses who gave up well-paying jobs and careers in India to join their spouses in the US had "no option but to stay home."

“I didn’t know about all this. I had no idea. It took us a few years to understand the rules,” says Vinod. A lot of H1B-led families tell us this of the chasm between the promise of an H1B and its dark side - the “cursed” H4 visa. That changed only in 2015, in the last leg of Obama’s second term.

Vinod is counted as one of the people who pummelled relentlessly to pull off that breakthrough moment. He’s back in a very difficult place now. The Trump Administration has indicated in unambiguous language that it intends to revoke the H4 work permit (called H4 EAD). The fine print was to be released in February and has now been pushed to June but the damage is already being done, seeding conflict inside Indian families in the US, sparking stress in various forms and we’re hearing more and more cases of adverse affects on health.

Vinod’s wife's situation is one such but this is one of thousands of such stories from a community of 1.5 million people stuck in the US Green Card waitlist. This is how the dots connect:

H4 EADs are given to spouses of H1B workers who have filed for a Green Card.
The average wait for a Green Card after date of filing is anywhere from 10-15 years on average.
Once the Green Card is through, the H4 EAD is irrelevant.
Until the Green Card comes, the H4 EAD is the only way an H1B workers' spouse can pursue paid work.

Vinod’s wife is a trained nurse but couldn’t work from 2009 till 2016, when her EAD turned up in the mail. By then, the long years in the woods sent her spiralling into “depression and hypertension*”, says Vinod.

“She used to spend entire days poring over updates on the ‘H4 visa a curse’ page on Facebook,” says Vinod about the single most informative social media page on the incredibly hard journey of the H4 visa in America’s immigration caste system.

Although we have not spoken to Vinod’s wife, this angst is fairly typical of the stories pouring out of the H4 community in the US. Many decisions contribute to the sense of unease. In Vinod’s case, a recent house purchase adds to the bitter cocktail, financial planning goes for a toss and the couple have two school going sons to care for.

With a sunk cost of ~350,000 on a house, no clarity on his wife’s health, the steep costs of medical care despite high cost insurance and the looming fear of the H4 work permit being revoked - this is not atypical of a new, fractured contract between perfectly legal immigrants and the US government.

On the networks, illegal immigrants' adult children ( DACA recipients) who have been granted work permits, also in the Obama era, have come to be the primary focus of the immigration deadlock in the US. Contrast that with the legal status of the H1B family in the US - they are legal, the H4 dependents are legal and if the H4 EAD is revoked, that leaves the H4 visa recipients worse off than DACA recipients with work permits.

“I believe in democracy. That is why I fought so hard for the H4 EAD. That is why I am sharing my story,” says Vinod, choking as the walls of the hospital room close in

We ask him what he plans to do if the H4 EAD is revoked.

“It will be a nightmare, I cannot afford to pay back my mortgage. But I worry for my wife. She is really scared to be in a situation where she cannot work. She may slip back into depression….”

Vinod says one more thing before he hangs up, fatigue seeping into his voice as he tries to keep it all together.

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