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Spouses of foreign workers in Florida, nationwide seek help with visa process

The Trump administration threatened to revoke work authorization for these spouses, but Biden has withdrawn that proposal.
Mansi Mathur, 33, lives near Orlando and is on the H-4 visa as she waits for legal permanent residence.
Mansi Mathur, 33, lives near Orlando and is on the H-4 visa as she waits for legal permanent residence. [ Courtesy of Mansi Mathur ]
Published Mar. 10
Updated Mar. 10

Mansi Mathur, who lives near Orlando, has worried in the past few years about whether she’ll be able work in the U.S.

Mathur moved here from her home in India in 2014 to be with her husband, who had obtained a temporary visa to work as an information technology consultant. In India, she had earned a master’s degree in business and was leading a human resources team. But in the U.S., she was ineligible to work and had no choice but to became financially dependent on her husband.

In 2015, President Barack Obama’s administration created a work permit for foreign nationals such as Mathur, who are married to workers on the H-1B visa.

About two years later, President Donald Trump’s administration drafted a proposal to revoke the spousal work permit, known as the H-4 employment authorization document. Policy experts saw it as a move to limit the number of foreign workers coming into the U.S., although the proposal never became law.

In January, President Joe Biden withdrew Trump’s draft rule, ending Mathur’s dread over the fate of her work permit. But while Biden also has introduced a sweeping immigration bill that further protects these work permits, Mathur and thousands of other H-4 visa holders are calling on his administration to address processing delays that have plagued the immigration system for years.

“People on H-4 really deserve to work,” said Mathur, 33.

The H-4 visa for spouses and children, and the primary H-1B visas, were designed for foreign workers on temporary stays in the U.S. The H-1B visa, which allows employers to hire highly skilled, college-educated foreign workers, lasts for three years and can be renewed for another three years.

The renewal can continue past those six years if the employer sponsors the H-1B visa holder and his or her H-4 dependents for legal permanent residence, or green cards, said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the think tank Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

Mathur and her husband are in that green card waiting period. And because they are Indian nationals, they’ll be waiting for a while.

That’s because each country can receive only 7 percent of the employment-based green cards available, regardless of how many applicants from that country are in the system, Gelatt said. The majority of H-1B and H-4 visa holders come from India, she said, which has led to a green card backlog for them that can last more than 10 years.

This backlog prompted creation of the H-4 visa work permit, Gelatt said, so that people, largely Indian women, could work as they waited for permanent legal residence.

And demand has remained strong for these permits.

In fiscal year 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved 21,067 initial H-4 work permit applications and 31,071 renewals, according to agency data. In fiscal year 2019, 20,837 initial applications were approved and 26,605 renewals.

Biden’s bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, would eliminate per-country visa caps and “other unnecessary hurdles for employment-based green cards,” according to a Jan. 20 press release. It would also make the H-4 work permit part of immigration statute as opposed to a presidential executive order and grant them regardless of whether the worker applied for a green card, Gelatt said.

But the wait to get sponsored for a green card to get the work permit can be taxing. Just ask Mathur.

Her husband transferred to the U.S. for work in 2014 with an H-1B visa.

Mathur was hesitant to join him in Florida because she wouldn’t arrive with the right to work. The couple tried living long-distance for six months, but it was putting a strain on their marriage.

“I had to choose between being married and having a career,” Mathur said.

Once in the U.S., Mathur learned that it would take longer than expected for her and her husband to get a green card. She ended up waiting about six years to be able to apply for a work permit.

“I used to feel like I had lost my identity,” she said. “I had my daughter in 2016, which was a blessing in a way, because I got to spend a lot of time with her, and that kind of helped me hold on to my sanity.”

She finally was authorized to work in August 2019, but didn’t get her work permit until February 2020, due to processing delays, she said. She landed a job as a human resource strategy consultant and has been enjoying her work life ever since.

Saving the H-4 work permit and raising awareness about such delays are what drove the creation of the online campaign SaveH4EAD, of which Mathur is a part. It estimates 2,500 to 3,500 H-4 visa workers in Florida.

The social media group advocates for changes in the H-4 visa and work permit processing and is reaching out to members of Congress for help, said Neha Mahapatra, 33, one of the group’s leaders. For instance, the group of thousands wants H-4 work permits to be automatically extended for 180 to 240 days when a permit holder applies for a renewal.

Mahapatra, who lives in Pennsylvania, applied to renew her work permit in July 2020 and still hasn’t received it. The delay caused her to lose her job as a marketing manager for an IT company, she said.

Losing out on a stable job due to gaps in work authorization is what Mathur fears as she anticipates renewing her work permit in 2022.

“Women deserve to work and have the right to work here in this country where your dreams can come true,” Mathur said.