Obama-era work rule may end, Indian immigrant women to be most affected

By Madhurita Goswami
Medill Reports

Moumita Chatterjee moved from India to Chicago with her husband nine years ago right after she graduated from college. Even though she had a degree in sociology, she wasn’t permitted to work here because she didn’t have the right visa.

In 2014, her husband, a software engineer, was sponsored for permanent residence in the U.S., allowing her to take advantage of an Obama-era rule that facilitated work permits for immigrant spouses of to-be green card holders.

She finally received her work permit a year ago, but the 31-year old is already in danger of losing it as the Department of Homeland Security considers whether to revoke the rule in March.

“I haven’t even started looking for jobs,” said Chatterjee, who gave birth to her second daughter last year.

A wall painting on Devon Ave. Many Indian families live in the area. (Madhurita Goswami/MEDILL)

The Obama Administration passed the rule in 2015 because foreign workers from some countries have to wait for years before they get their green cards. Chatterjee’s husband still doesn’t have one. Meanwhile, spouses can’t apply for green cards or jobs.

The rule benefitted Indian spouses the most because Indian nationals are the biggest group of foreign workers, who are issued temporary H-1B visas. In the first three years of the rule change, nearly 93% of the dependent work permits were issued to Indian women, according to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, which administers the immigration system.

Now, however, the current administration is contemplating revoking the rule after President Trump issued an executive order to create more employment for U.S. workers and protect their economic interests through stricter immigration laws.

The change will hit Indian women the hardest, said Tejas Shah, an immigration lawyer with Barnes and Thornburg.

“It will prevent them from working legally and make them vulnerable to exploitation,” Shah said.

If it comes to the worst, Chatterjee said, she would continue giving music lessons to children, which she started in 2012.

“However, I can only teach a limited number of students without a work permit,” she said.

Some women like 38-year old Madhumita Chakraborty volunteered as a way to stay busy before she received a permit that allowed her to work as an IT consultant. She recalled being lonely before she volunteered for All Stars Project, an organization that works with young people from neighborhoods hit by violence.

Chakraborty, who has an MBA, said she valued that experience and still keeps in touch with her friends from All Stars. However, having the choice to take up a salaried job gives her a sense of accomplishment.

“We have the background to do these jobs and want to do them,” she said.

South Asian women’s advocacy groups Apna Ghar and Sanjeevani said they were concerned in particular about women losing their ability to be independent, which might expose them to spousal abuse.

“A woman will be hesitant to complain against an abuser who is the only family member authorized to work,” Apna Ghar’s outreach manager Radhika Sharma said.

Women on dependent visas don’t even get a social security number or a permanent driving license and can’t access services that require identification, Apna Ghar executive director Neha Gill said.

“They are forced to depend on their partners,” she added.

Some women take up jobs that pay in cash, but they are vulnerable to theft and exploitation, Sanjeevani’s executive director Promila Kumar said.

Regardless of whether the permit rule is revoked, the processing times for work applications have increased, according to some women’s advocates and immigration lawyers. Every application undergoes additional vetting, and the backlog is building up, said Shah, the immigration attorney.

He said he is continuing to encourage women to apply for work permits until the rule is actually overturned. Everyone is prepared for it but there is a “good basis to challenge the move.”

Photo at top: Most of the dependent work permits are issued to Indian women. (Madhurita Goswami/MEDILL)