THE WOODLANDS, Texas – 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.
At the end of 2013, Saisha Mehta moved to Houston to be with Kabir. The couple had spent two years in a long-distance relationship while Kabir finished his Master’s degree in Alaska and Saisha worked in India.
When Kabir got a job in Houston after graduation, the pair decided it was time to start their lives together. Saisha, then 29, left her established career behind to marry the love of her life and move to Houston to be with him.
Their immigration woes began, like most others in their situation, when Kabir was hired at an American company on an H-1B visa. His new bride had no choice but to apply for the dependent H-4 visa so they could be together.
“When I got married, I already had six years of media planning experience and an MBA,” Saisha said. “But when I came here, there was nothing I could do.”
Many H-1B spouses are highly educated already but choose to go back to school and get another degree as a foot-in-the-door to the U.S. workforce. If they are able to switch their visa status to the F-1 student visa to get another degree, they can work for at least one year after they graduate during a period called Optional Practical Training. Meanwhile, they have to find an employer willing to sponsor their H-1B visa so they can then switch their visa status to one that would allow them to continue working.
Saisha already had a Master’s degree. She wanted to work. Not sit in another classroom.
“I felt it was useless because I already spent so much money when I was back in India, doing (an) MBA,” she said.
Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce, a Master’s in Business Administration and several years of work experience, Saisha thought she’d soon be snatched up by an employer willing to sponsor her work visa.
Shoo-in? Not so fast
As Saisha and Kabir began decorating their new The Woodlands home with treasures, trinkets and memories from their recent wedding, she also set out looking for jobs, confident she’d find one soon. She was ready to hit the ground running and keep the momentum of her career growth going.
Saisha says she applied for several jobs but received no offers. American employers were unwilling to hire her as they’d also have to sponsor her work visa. She asked her former employer in India if she could work for the company from the U.S. but that opportunity fizzled too. She even offered to volunteer her time to the company for no pay.
Unbeknownst to Saisha, one of the rules governing H-4 visa holders is if you volunteer your time for a job you could be getting paid for, it’s considered work and isn’t allowed.
She continued to apply for jobs in the following months, desperate to find a company that was willing to sponsor her H-1B visa. Saisha says one company, New York-based SynMeta LLC, agreed to hire and train her but asked her to pay $4,500 for the H-1B application. She says she even had a conference call with the company and they explained the process. One of the rules governing H-1B applications is that the employer who is filing the petition must pay for the application. The legal fees and application process can cost and employer between $5,000 and $7,000, according to Houston immigration lawyer, Mana Yegani.
“I was naive. I didn’t know if we were supposed to pay or if the employer pays (for the H-1B application),” she said.
So the couple says they paid nearly five grand and Saisha went through a week-long training with the company. After a lot of back and forth, they assured her they’d file an H-1B application for her and sent her a receipt in the mail to prove it. But Saisha said it was hard to read the name on the application.
Then, Saisha said the company began sending her links to jobs that weren’t remotely within her area of expertise
“I said ‘that’s not possible. I can’t do it. I don’t want the job, return my money back,’” she said. “I followed them for two years. I didn’t get my money. (To) date, I’ve not got my money back.”
On the Better Business Bureau of New York website, there were two complaints listed against the company that were never addressed. The company has an overall C+ rating. On the BBB serving the Pacific Southwest website, the company has an A+ rating but is accompanied by the following statement:
“On June 14, 2017 the BBB contacted the business regarding reports that the company may be taking deposits in exchange for working visas (H-1B) and IT training and not rendering services, candidates also report that they were unable to reclaim their deposits. The company did not respond to the BBB's concerns.”
KPRC 2 reached out the New York-based company for comment and is yet to hear back.
Coping with the tough reality
For Saisha and Kabir, the experience was both painful and expensive.
“That was four months rent right there,” Saisha said. “People are so desperate when they come here, when they’re not having an EAD, that they end up getting stuck and f----d in processes like such. Instead of stopping our EADs, why don’t they take away the licenses of such scam companies who are trying to fool the government and take our money too?”
For someone who prided herself on her ambition and drive, Saisha struggled to settle into the monotony that hundreds of thousands of other H-4 visa-holding spouses have to come to terms with.
On one hand, Saisha wanted to support her husband’s career opportunities in the U.S., but she battled with the idea of what living on an H-4 visa meant for her life. The house she and her husband worked so hard to make into a home, was where she was starting to feel trapped.
To keep busy, she turned to chores, gardening, painting and other hobbies but it was hard for her to suppress the very essence of who she is -- an ambitious, driven and hardworking woman.
“All those things (her hobbies) are not productive at the end of the day,” Saisha said. “It’s not giving you money, it’s not giving you anything. It’s ridiculous.”
Each day, she makes the choice to stay positive rather than get pulled into the depths of an easy depression that accompanies a lack of control.
“Me as a person, I’m very, very patient. That is why I could take six years of torture where I’m not doing anything at all,” she said. “Throughout the day you go through so many emotions. At one point you think, ‘Am I that useless that I can’t do anything?’ And at another point, you’ll think ‘No, it’s OK. I’ll do something new and keep busy. I’ll take some courses and keep myself updated.’”
It hasn’t been easy for Kabir to watch his wife have to put her own dreams aside for the sake of his.
“I just feel bad,” Kabir said. He said knowing his wife has the skills, qualifications, and desire to work, it’s been difficult to watch her be blocked from every opportunity.
Saisha says she saw first hand the toll it took on other women who were unable to work. For one of Saisha’s friends, the frustration of being on an H-4 visa put a strain on her marriage. Her marriage eventually ended in divorce and Saisha’s friend went back to India.
“I’m just saying, there are a few people who can take it and a few people who really can’t take it,” she said.
To stay or not to stay?
Kabir and Saisha have discussed whether it was worth constantly jumping through the hoops of the immigration system.
When asked if Kabir ever considered going back to India, he said he thought about it “every single day.”
“What my salary is (here), I could probably make a similar amount in India. It’s not a big deal,” Kabir said. “It’s just that the lifestyle is better over here compared to India so we’re like ‘OK, let’s wait for a while,’” he said.
Saisha said she didn’t want to entertain the thought of going back because she wanted to support Kabir’s career.
“She tried her best not to cry in front of me, so that we don’t go back to India,” Kabir said.
Groups of business leaders warned the Department of Homeland Security of this very thing as the agency continues to consider revoking work authorization. Industry leaders worry that workers on an H-1B visa would possibly choose to move out of the U.S. if their spouses were blocked from working.
“Other countries allow these valuable professionals to work, so revoking their U.S. work authorization will likely cause highly-skilled immigrants to take their skills to competitors outside the United States,” the Business Roundtable wrote in a letter to DHS in August 2018.
In 2016, Kabir’s application for permanent residency was accepted and Saisha applied for and received an EAD. But she has still struggled to get a job. Two things counted against her, she says — she had been out of the workforce for several years at that point, and by 2017, news broke that the work authorization might be revoked.
Today, Saisha continues to search for a job as Kabir is looking to start a new business venture.
KPRC 2 has changed the couple’s names at their request as they continue to navigate the U.S. immigration system.