Visa Policies Keep Women From Working

The U.S. won’t let ‘dependents’ of H-1B holders get jobs.

 By Vivek Ravisankar

When Arjun and Priya arrived in America six years ago, they came ready to contribute. Arjun landed an engineering job in Seattle and was approved for an H-1B visa. As his wife, Priya was granted an H-4 visa. With a graduate degree and years of experience in computer programming, she also was ready to work. But Priya would soon be exposed to the immigration laws that barred her and other H-4 visa holders from work.

Visa Policies Keep Women From Working

As an Indian immigrant, I have known too many husbands and wives who moved to the U.S. with the skills needed for a technical job but the inability to use them. Companies are starving for this kind of talent. Yet on Dec. 14, the Trump administration announced plans to kill an Obama -era program that allows spouses of H-1B visa holders to work.

To see why this is misguided, it’s crucial to understand the larger system of skilled-worker visas in the U.S. Take the H-1B visa, a specialty worker visa. To qualify, a worker must have at least a bachelor’s degree (or the equivalent) and specialized skill in a given field. 

For five consecutive years, the demand for H-1B visas has exceeded the annual cap of 85,000. In 2016 there were a record 236,000 applications. When the quota is quickly met, immigration services select applicants by lottery, prioritizing chance over merit and skill.

This can become absurd very quickly. When we wanted to move to the U.S. from India to start our company, my co-founder, Hari, and I had to go through the lottery system. The U.S. granted me a visa, while Hari had to stay behind. Today he helps lead the company from Bangalore, while I run our headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.

Where do H-4 visas come in? They are given to dependents of H-1B visa holders—spouses and children under 21. The government issues roughly 125,000 H-4 visas every year, approximately 80% of them granted to Indian women like Priya. Most recipients are between the ages of 26 and 35 and college-educated. Many applied for an H-1B but lost the lottery. They’re forced into a lengthy wait for a green card, during which they are unable to put their skills to use.

Meanwhile, there’s aren’t enough tech workers to fill available jobs. There are almost 10 times as many U.S. computing jobs open as students who graduated with computer-science degrees. The disparity is growing.

There has been talk of moving away from the H-1B lottery toward a system that is based on skill and merit. A similar change should be enacted for H-4 visa holders. Imagine a process that enables someone like Priya to prove her skills—and contribute to the American economy.

H-1B visa workers already have proved themselves an integral part of the American economy. Their spouses should become part of the conversation too.

Mr. Ravisankar is CEO and a co-founder of HackerRank.

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