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Originally published May 5, 2013 at 7:00 PM | Page modified May 5, 2013 at 7:15 PM

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Foreign workers’ spouses often stuck in limbo

They are part of a sisterhood of sorts — spouses of software engineers and computer programmers. Many of them hold multiple advanced degrees but are not legally permitted to work in the U.S.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Looking back now, Pallavi Dua admits she wasn’t prepared for the frustration of being surrounded by jobs for which she easily qualified but which were off-limits to her under U.S. immigration laws.

The wife of a Microsoft software engineer here on an H-1B visa, Dua’s status as an H-4 visa spouse did not permit her to work in the U.S. or get a Social Security number — leaving her financially dependent on her husband.

It’s a reality for the 27-year-old, who holds an MBA and for three years worked as a business analyst in New Delhi before joining her husband here two years ago. Dua is part of a select group of foreign residents, almost all of them women, more than half, like her, South Asian, and many of them holding at least one advanced degree.

While they wait, a lucky few persuade U.S. employers to apply on their behalf for a H-1B visa. Many others, like Dua, take college courses, adding to the degrees they already have. Still others do volunteer work, start families or simply stay home.

There’s some hope for them in a sweeping and controversial immigration bill introduced in Congress last month that would grant work authorization to those whose home countries offer reciprocal treatment to the spouses of U.S. citizen workers.

In Dua’s case, India is not one of them.

The 844-page bill, which covers issues ranging from legal status for those in the country unlawfully to doubling the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers, is scheduled for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

Testifying on the bill last month, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said H-4 spouses tend to be “well educated ... and able to contribute productively to the economy.”

Prohibiting them from working, he said, causes “financial, personal and other hardships for employees and causes recruitment and retention problems for employers.”

“Stuck in the house”

When she was planning her move to the U.S., Dua said, she envisioned taking a year off to relax, even as her husband urged her to do more to prepare — like looking into potential jobs or taking the GMAT for graduate school.

“In the back of my mind, I was confident that with an MBA I’d be able to find work,” she said.

But once she was here, the idea of taking it easy went out the window as boredom set in. The few people she knew in the Seattle area — including her husband — had jobs to go to each day. And her lack of a driver’s license and unfamiliarity with the area meant there was little to keep her occupied.

“I went from this mode of getting married and all the attention that goes with that to being stuck in the house where all you do is wait for your husband to come home.

“I didn’t think it would be this bad.”

Advocates have long fretted that the legal restrictions on H-4s turn spouses into involuntary housewives.

“Individuals on H-4 visas pay a heavy price for the privilege of living in the U.S. and being with their spouses,” said Tahmina Watson, an immigration attorney in Seattle.

“The restrictions on their daily lives are almost oppressive.”

But Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, characterizes this as “backdoor expansion, where you get two for the price of one.”

“The condition under which you agree to come to this country is that you can bring your spouse but they’re not eligible to work,” he said.

“We need to hold people to the bargains they make.”

How the system works

Each year, U.S. employers use nonimmigrant H-1B visas to hire 85,000 foreign workers into specialty jobs. The visa is good for three years and renewable for another three, with most workers applying during that six-year window for permanent residency, or green cards.

Green cards are distributed on a per-country basis and because of the large number of applicants from places such as China and India, the backlog for visas coming available for applicants from those countries can stretch for years, even decades.

H-1B workers are allowed under law to bring their spouses and children, estimated at about 1.1 dependents per H-1B candidate. They can apply for a work permit only when a green card becomes available for the H-1B worker and they obtain permanent residency at the same time the H-1B holder does.

To overcome the employment ban, many try to change their status from H-4 to another type of nonimmigrant visa that allows them to work, such as an F-1 student visa or even their own H-1B.

But sponsoring foreign workers for employment visas is a huge effort on the part of the employer, is costly and complex. And while an American hired today can start work tomorrow, an H-1B hire requires an application fee that typically costs about $2,300, plus attorney fees. What’s more, with demand high, there are no guarantees they’ll get a visa once they submit their application in April and employers can’t bring the employee onboard until October of that year.

Gaining work authorization through her husband’s green-card petition is at least six years away, she predicts.

She had tried, without success, to find an employer willing to sponsor her for an H-1B visa.

“The first question (employers) ask is ‘are you authorized to work in the U.S.?’ ” she said. “Sometimes the application gets rejected right there and then. I got one or two companies that were ready to talk to me but said they don’t sponsor H-1Bs.”

In January 2012, five months after she arrived, she began taking courses toward a master’s degree in information systems at a university in Seattle.

Another master’s degree, she admits, wasn’t in the cards.

“When I completed my master’s in India, I thought that was it. I feel working gives you more experience than studying. But there was nothing better to do so I had no choice but to study.”

Last resort

Recognizing the H-4’s restrictions, Ananya Rabeya considered it her last resort in a race against time to remain legally in the U.S.

The 29-year-old Bangladeshi met her husband online in 2007 when he was working as a software engineer on an H-1B visa in Seattle and she had just graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma.

She moved to Washington to be closer to him, enrolling at Eastern Washington University to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics and taking a graduate instructor position.

During the summers, she taught math at Lakeside School. And for a year after she graduated from EWU in 2011, she taught at The Northwest School, which she’d hoped would sponsor her for an H-1B visa.

“For me working was crucial,” Rabeya said. “We are a family of two ... with pretty strong family ties back in Bangladesh and family members who depend on us. There’s no way I could afford to sit around and not work.”

But after the H-1B option at Northwest fell through, Rabeya began a frantic search for an employer to sponsor her for an H-1B visa.

In cover letters, she disclosed her need for H-1B sponsorship. She knew she was asking a lot — trying to persuade private schools and community colleges to sponsor her for an employment visa without having seen her work.

She married in 2011 and by September the following year, with no employment in the offing and her time to remain legally running out, Rabeya switched to H-4.

It will take at least four years before she’ll be able to apply for work authorization through her husband’s employment-based green-card petition. “Everything is so uncertain,” she said. “Now I’m waiting for that to come through so I can start working.”

In the meantime, she has been admitted to the University of Washington to pursue a master’s in education, but without an assistantship waiving the tuition, she said, she can’t afford to accept it.

So she spends her time volunteering with several cultural projects as well as tutoring children from low-income homes. She said, “I wake up every morning asking, ‘what can I do that is productive and effective?’ ”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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