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Out of time and choices: Woman struggles to find work while walking tight-rope of immigration system

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WASHINGTON, D.C.Living in limbo is a continued in-depth series by KPRC 2 that delves into the challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of Indian women in the United States who stand to lose work authorization if President Donald Trump’s administration changes one rule. This series was made possible by a fellowship grant from the South Asian Journalists Association’s SAJA Reporting Fellowship Program. Read the full series here.

Kalyani Phadke always knew she wanted to get her Master’s degree and work for a top IT firm. In 2015, when an arranged marriage brought the 23-year-old to Houston, she came knowing her husband Nirav was ready to support her dreams.

Within months of moving to a new country and settling into life with the partner she was still getting to know, Kalyani jumped into action. Swiftly changing her visa status from the H-4 dependent visa to the F-1 student visa, she enrolled at the University of Houston-Clear Lake to begin the first classes of her Masters in Management of Information Systems.

“It was pretty much aligned to what I did before in my Bachelor’s degree, but I had some new courses,” Kalyani said.

She powered through grad school and had a diploma by May 2017. Master’s degree in hand, Kalyani faced the daunting task all of her peers faced -- finding a job. However, her’s was an even tougher ordeal as she had to find an employer willing to sponsor her H-1B visa as well.

She was able to work briefly with a Houston-based company during the 1-year Optional Practical Training period allowed to people on a student visa. This period is when a new employer prepares and files the complicated paperwork required for an H-1B visa application. For students in STEM fields, if the company that hires them is e-verified, they can apply for an extension on their OPT, essentially allowing them to work for three years while their H-1B application is processed.

But before Kalyani’s Houston-based employer could file her H-1B visa petition, the situation her family life rapidly changed. Nirav landed a dream job in California and moved. Kalyani was going to follow when she could find a job.

But that’s when the complications began.

“For me, having a job was priority, as an F-1 student,” she said.

If she couldn’t quickly find an employer who would be willing to file her H-1B paperwork, she would have to switch back to the H-4 dependent visa in order to remain in the country with Nirav.

The moving finish line

Kalyani immediately started searching for jobs in California and by December, she was snatched up by a startup that was ready to help her get a work visa. Her new company, like many others, had a 90-day probation policy for all new hires.

But the company’s timeline didn’t quite fit with Kalyani’s race against time. By the time her three-month probation was up, it was already March. The window to apply for an H-1B opens up on April 1 and in June, Kalyani’s 1-year OPT period was going to run out.

Since many companies began compiling H-1B application packets months in advance, Kalyani was in a tight spot. Students with degrees in science, technology, engineering or math have the ability to file for an extension on their OPT, allowing them work for an additional 24 months before being required to file H-1B paperwork. Kalyani and her company decided the best way to proceed was for her to file for the extension and her company would file her H-1B paperwork the following year.

In April, Kalyani said she began collecting the paperwork she needed to file for the extension and brought them to her employer. However, one of the caveats for filing a STEM extension was that the person could only be employed as a trainee. Kalyani says her company decided they could not sign off on the STEM extension because she had already advanced to a position higher than a trainee.

Last resort

By now, Kalyani was out of time and choices. She had two months to either find a new job with an employer willing to sign her STEM extension or switch to an H-4 visa, on which she wouldn’t be able to work without an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). Nevertheless, for the third time in one year, she started applying for jobs.

“A month-and-a-half is a very short amount of time to find another job and every time (I apply), I have to explain all this scenario to (potential employers),” Kalyani said. “Can you imagine an employer who will be ready to hear all this in an interview?”

With no time left, the immigration specialists at Nirav’s company stepped in and helped Kalyani switch to an H-4 visa and began the process to help her get an EAD. But it was a gamble because that summer, news broke that as a result of the 2017 Trump edict to “buy American, hire American,” the Department of Homeland Security was considering revoking the EAD for H-4 visa holders.

What should have been a three-month process ended up taking seven months.

“I was at home from mid-April (2018) to January (2019) and I couldn’t go to India because my visa status and EAD were pending,” she said. By that point, she hadn’t been able to go back to India to see her family in three years.

Finally, in January, Kalyani’s visa and EAD were processed and so with reentry into the U.S. assured, she was finally able to fly home to see them.

Third job hunt in two years

Once she came back, she started her fourth round of job hunting in a span of two years. By then, employers were awash with rumors that work authorization for H-4 visa holders was going to be revoked. Once again, Kalyani faced the uphill battle of finding an employer who would be understanding of her immigration issues.

“Even when the interviews went well, because of this, I was not getting through to the last rounds (of interviews),” she said.

Finally, after months of doors shutting in her face, Kalyani landed a job. The company has a dedicated team of immigration specialists and the couple feels more confident that they will be supported if Kalyani’s EAD was suddenly pulled from under their feet.

“The good thing is, the company is supportive,” Kalyani said. “They know that government processes take time. They’ve seen these kinds of cases a lot of times.”

The couple, who now lives in Washington D.C., hasn’t yet seen the end of the road in their immigration journey. Since Nirav’s I-140 petition for a Green Card was accepted, the couple is on their way to gaining permanent residency in the U.S.

No end in sight: 10 more years?

The couple faces the reality that they may have to wait for another decade to actually get a Green Card.

Each year, the U.S. government issues about 1 million Green Cards and about 140,000 of those are for employment-based applicants. There is also a 7% cap for applicants from each country so once the cap is reached, the rest of the applications are pushed to the next year, creating huge backlogs for two countries in particular — India and China.

Indian-born workers make up about 75% of the backlog and a report by the Washington Post in December estimates if an Indian person applies for a Green Card today, it might take upwards of 10 years for them to finally receive it.

This means, while Nirav and Kalyani wait for their Green Cards, they will have to keep filing extensions on Nirav’s H-1B visa so they both can remain in the country. Despite their application for permanent residency being accepted, there is no guarantee that each time they file for an extension, it will be approved. Their last extension was valid through March 2020 and in November 2019, they filed for another one. It was processed through recently so they’ve bought themselves another three years.

However, that still only guarantees their ability to stay in the U.S. and Nirav’s ability to work. Kalyani is currently working

KPRC 2 has changed the couple’s names at their request to protect their identities as they continue to navigate the U.S. immigration system.

KPRC
KPRC (KPRC)

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