What local lawmakers think about the plan for some immigrant spouses to lose their employment authorization

JERSEY CITY, NJ - SEPTEMBER 17: One hundred immigrants become American citizens during a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park on September 17, 2015 in Jersey City, New Jersey. The group, representing 30 countries, took the oath of allegiance to the United States on U.S. Citizenship Day. They are part of some 36,000 people that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) plans to nationalize nationwide during the week of September 17-23. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) (John Moore, 2015 Getty Images)

HOUSTONLiving 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.

Ever since President Donald Trump’s administration announced its intent to consider revoking the employment authorization for some spouses of highly-skilled immigrant workers, many community leaders have been vocal about their stance.

Candidates in an election year

The issue is especially relevant to members of the Greater Houston community where there is a large community of highly-skilled immigrants, especially from Asian countries like India.

In 2017, more than 1 in 4 people in Fort Bend County were foreign-born and in 2018, the second-most common birthplace of foreign-born residents in the county was India -- second only to Mexico. Harris County has a similar demographic breakdown with 26.1% of the population being foreign-born in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

When Sri Preston Kulkarni, a Democrat from Fort Bend County, announced his intent to run for office, one of the first things people begged him to fix was the bureaucratic web and red tape that prevents spouses of highly skilled immigrants from working, he said. Kulkarni, a former foreign service officer who has a deep understanding of the immigration system, is hoping to replace Republican Rep. Pete Olson as the representative of Texas District 22.

“I don’t see any reason for H4-EADs to be removed because the argument is that it’s competing with American labor market, and I just don’t see that. I think that’s whipping up fear and tension and it goes along with this entire anti-immigrant sentiment of this government,” he said.

There was perhaps only one other candidate vying for the same seat would truly understand the plight of H-4 visa holders on an intimate level. Immigrant businessman Bangar Reddy has been in the U.S. since 1991 and was hoping to snatch up the Republican ticket in the race for District 22, during the March primaries.

Reddy’s wife was briefly on the H-4 visa herself when they first got married. However, he said she was able to switch to an H1-B a few years later.

While campaigning, he said he too said he had heard from Fort Bend County community members who felt the H-4 EAD was an important issue they wanted to be addressed. But Reddy had a different take on it.

“I believe that this whole immigration system is in chaos and this H4-EAD introduced by Obama added more confusion to it,” Reddy said. “It’s like a patch to the problem, applying a patch like giving pain medication for a serious problem.”

He believes the key to solving the H-4 EAD issue is by fixing the issue of huge country-specific backlogs in Green Card processing.

“I’m not saying that (the H-4 EAD) should go away but I think it’s time to fix the problem for good, to expedite (green card processing), to remove the country-specific backlog that will automatically solve the EAD issue,” Reddy said.

However, Reddy lost on Super Tuesday and his opponents, Kathaleen Wall and Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls are locked in a battle for the upcoming July runoff primary elections.

Current local lawmakers

Rep. Pete Olson also chimed in on the issue in a statement to KPRC 2.

“Right now, in America and in TX-22, it is a job-seeker’s market,” he wrote. “If you’re able to work and looking for a job, you can find one. With record low unemployment, refining the H-4 visa program at this time seems unnecessary.”

It is important to note that Olson made this statement before the coronavirus pandemic and economic slide left millions without jobs around the country and in Texas.

When KPRC 2 reached out to the office of Sen. John Cornyn, the senior U.S. Senator from Texas, a representative from his office wrote that, “Sen. Cornyn supports high-skilled immigrants and their families and is a cosponsor of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act.”

While the bipartisan Fairness for Highly-Skilled Immigrants Act doesn’t directly address the issue of the H-4 EAD, it does aim to remove the country-specific caps for employment-based Green Card applications which would reduce the backlogs and wait times for Green Card processing.

There were also several letters sent to the Department of Homeland Security by U.S. lawmakers from around the country asking that the EAD for H-4 visa holders not be revoked. One bipartisan letter, sent in May 2018, was signed by 132 U.S. Representatives including six Texas Democrats: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston), Rep. Gene Green (D-Houston), Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Waco) and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio). No Texas Republicans joined in.

“While our immigration system certainly needs reforms — including fixes to the employment and family backlogs that keep H-4 spouses from transitioning to permanent residency — depriving spouses who live in the United States for decades of work authorization is not the way forward,” the Members of Congress wrote. “We urge you to maintain the rule allowing certain H-4 spouses work authorization.”


Living in limbo

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FAQs: What is the H-4 visa and EAD?

Living in limbo: A glossary of terms related to the H-4 visa and the US immigration system

Living in limbo: How and why we covered this story

About the Author:

Tulsi started as an enterprise reporter at KPRC2 in 2019. She specializes in in-depth storytelling, going beyond the breaking headlines to provide context and understanding. She previously worked at the Houston Chronicle and was a member of the Pulitzer Prize finalist team for their coverage of Hurricane Harvey.