You come. You work. You leave. A Story of Modern Exploitation.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services created the American visa system to provide migrants with an opportunity to settle in America. But for many visa holders, this dream has become a false promise. Around 2 million Asian Indians wait in line to get a green card or permanent residency, with 100,000 joining the wait every year. This arduous process is placing many families in a gray area, facing limited workplace mobility, an uncertain future, and a lack of freedom.
The primary visa many immigrants use is the H-1B visa, a non-immigrant visa to bring in more skilled foreign workers. The process of getting selected for the visa rebutts the commonly held belief that it is easy to immigrate to America ‘legally.’ An H-1B applicant is required to have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree in their country of origin and must already be employed at a company with locations established in America. The company will then file an application on behalf of the client, which would enter the visa lottery.
These outsourcing companies that sponsor H-1B visas are called “body shops,” where they buy and sell cheap working bodies.
The probability of getting an H-1B visa is around 38%. In 2018-2019, 170,000 H-1B visa petitions were submitted and approved, and only 65,000 of them got selected.
When the visa holder comes to America, they are expected to work only for the employer that sponsors their visa. The worker’s ability to apply for a green card is also solely controlled by the company, forcing workers to stay in exploitative jobs to remain in the US. Moreover, H-1B workers are further disincentivized to quit, as they risk facing deportation or being sued for up to $30,000 if they leave before the end of their contracts.
Over 83% of foreign workers are severely under-compensated and paid over 40% less than their American counterparts. Since the primary employer of H-1B workers are large tech companies, these practices go largely unregulated.
The country that promised H-1B immigrants a better life is the same one that treats them like unprotected economic pawns.
H-1B visas have a life span of 3 years, and can be renewed only once, unless the visa holder applies for a green card. But, the process to apply is hardly easy.
USCIS only accepts 7% of green card applications from each country, forcing a large backlog on the system.
Even worse, the Trump administration is rejecting many visa renewals, even for those in line for permanent residency. Beginning in early 2019, more and more visa holders and their families are forced to leave after a failed renewal.
The narrative pushed out by the federal government is simple: immigrants are nothing more than cheap labor to be used and sent back.
However, while a solution to the green card backlog has been drafted, with the recent news of the Iran conflict escalation and the impeachment, the bill has lost traction and visa holders are back to square one: hoping a U.S. politician hears their pleas.
On the other hand, the difficulty of acquiring a H-1B visa is also a feminist issue. According to a study by Dice, 85% of H-1Bs go to male foreign workers, thus creating a substantial gender inequality in the visa process.
When a spouse comes with her husband who is on an H-1B, she’s placed on a dependent H4 visa. As the H-1B holder, the husband has control over whether or not his wife gets an EAD, a work permit for H4 dependents. Because women have to wait 6 years to qualify for an EAD, they are often not hired because the years spent waiting for the permit equates to a lack of job experience. Therefore, the inability to attain an independent income perpetuates women’s financial dependency on their husbands.
Moreover, the H-1B program substantiates the patriarchal hierarchy in a family, the spouse’s ability to obtain a green card and her legal status in the US is controlled by the husband. The spouse doesn’t have legal representation because the lawyers can only represent the H-1B holder.
This cycle of dependency prevents immigrant women from leaving violent relationships because they can’t find work afterwards and are forced to be deported. In fact, 75% of domestic abuse victims for the South Asian community are H4 holders.
Even Indian American youth are harmed through the immigration process. The children of the visa, the dependent H4 holders, are left in a gray area with no social security number to gain employment, nor any freedom because their legal status is tied to their parent with the H-1B visa.
After graduating from high school, H4 children have access to in-state residency until the age of 21. However, they are not allowed to apply for any federal or state aid or scholarships, placing the large burden of higher education solely on their parents. This financial stress along with low wages for H-1B workers, creates a situation in which higher education becomes more of a fantasy than a reality for many children.
H4 children age out of their parent’s visa at the age of 21, forcing self-deportation among these youth who grew up in America. The only two options remaining for H4 youth at that point are to attend graduate school under an F1 student visa, or return to their home country and apply for an H-1B visa, with the hope of getting selected in the visa lottery in April.
The H-1B system is a form of exploitation that affects every member of the migrant family, not just the primary visa holder.
Even perfect enforcement of the existing law will not solve the exploitation that occurs as these practices and systemic inequalities are inherent in the structure of the H-1B program. The employers and body shops functionally own and control the worker’s labor; it is the most current example of commodified immigrant labor that is being exploited based on status.
In a neoliberal system, immigrant flows are adapted to the ebb and flow of market demand, where we invite more foreigners when we need more laborers to give our economy a boost. The H-1B system sets up exploitation as it prioritizes economic value without any consideration about the workers’ lives.
A system that is rooted in racism and the exploitation of people of color can not be solved by a series of reforms, it must be abolished.
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