When Tech Workers Arrive On Visa, What About Their Spouses?
This week, spouses of high-tech foreign workers got some good news: the federal government will begin offering some work permits. A lot of tech companies in the U.S. hire foreign workers who come here on H-1B visas, but their spouses — mostly wives — have long pointed to a major drawback. They haven't been allowed to work.
Now, things are changing. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it will start taking applications for work permits in May. It's expected that up to 180,000 spouses would initially qualify, then around 50,000 more each year after.
But in Seattle, many newlywed arrivals will still face the same old waiting game.
Upasana Kone, 26, moved from South India to the Seattle suburbs almost a year ago, after she got married. She worked as a public relations executive in India and has a master's degree in business. Except, the thing is, she doesn't work here — she can't. Her visa only allows her to live in this country, not work here.
Her husband is an engineer at Microsoft here in the U.S. on an H-1B visa, and it's estimated that more than half a million workers are in the U.S. on these visas at any given time.
"Some people don't understand the visa issue, so they constantly pit you against women of your age and say, 'Hey, look at her; she's moving on.' It's not that it's my personal choice that I'm not working," Kone says. She helped organize a fundraiser for kids in India. Volunteering is one of the main ways she spends her time now.
Most H-1B workers come from India. The federal program allows them to bring spouses and children here, but rules prohibit the spouses from working, even though many are also highly skilled.
"But what about their spouses?" Kone says of people on H-1B visas. "It hurts your self-esteem, your independence. It kind of kills your confidence slowly but surely."
Kone knew about the restrictions before she moved here, but thought she would find a way around them. She misses her career, and the extra money to help out her parents.
"It's my responsibility that I take care of them. That's something which I feel bad about," she says.
Kone has seen women in her situation eventually give up on careers. Instead, they raise a family, do volunteer work or get more college degrees. She has also seen women become depressed, and marriages crumble.
One option for Kone is to return to India, alone.
"But, you know, the question of going back to India, first of all, is almost morally, culturally and socially unacceptable," she says.
Immigration attorney Tahmina Watson meets a lot of high-tech couples dealing with this issue. She sees some wives try for the same H-1B work visa as their husbands, but that's often a long shot.
"You know, it's a lottery. How can people compete with that?" Watson says. It's a lottery that's for a limited number of visas — and lately, demand has shot up. And Watson says tech spouses want a better solution.
"There has been a consistent push to the administration to allow spouses to have work permits. This push has happened for several years now," she says.
But some spouses will still face a long wait, because they need to be at a certain point in their green card process, and often it takes several years to get there.
Back at Microsoft's main campus, the food competition winds down. This week's rule change will likely help Kone get a work permit. But it's still not a sure thing.
So, she hunts for a plan B. And sometimes, at night, she wakes up her husband:
"And [I] say, 'Hey, what if we move to the U.K.?' He's like, 'Sleep!' ... Or like, 'Or go to Singapore?' 'OK, we'll talk about it,' " Kone says.
Maybe now, they'll get more sleep.
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