Indian H-4 entrepreneurs in limbo as U.S. rethinks visa rules
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Nitin Venugopal is an Indian engineer who has an H-1B visa but has chosen to be on an H-4 visa, meant for dependents of H-1B visa-holders, to pursue his entrepreneurial dream. H-1B visa regulations require its holders to earn a salary. Mr. Venugopal invoked his dependent status, linked to his wife’s H-1B visa, when he cofounded a gaming start-up with two American colleagues, in New York. “Salary was not available then,” he told The Hindu. People like Mr. Venugopal - hundreds of them - are facing a serious risk now, as the Donald Trump administration may end work authorization for spouses of H-1B holders. It was a 2015 executive action by the administration of President Barack Obama that allowed these people to leave jobs and become job creators in America.
“We have six full-time employees, excluding three of us owners. All except me are American citizens,” Mr. Venugopal, who is the also Chief Technology Officer of the company, said. His company - he doesn’t want its name published - has been growing well, has raised funds twice and is on the way to a third round.
The Trump administration said in December 2017 that it was considering the discontinuation of work authorisation for H-4 visa holders, to open up more jobs for Americans. But the story of Mr. Venugopal and several others who turned to entrepreneurship appears to be in line with the rationale behind the previous administration’s decision to grant them work permits. “By providing the possibility of employment authorization to certain H-4 dependent spouses, the rule will ameliorate certain disincentives for talented H-1B nonimmigrants to permanently remain in the United States and continue contributing to the U.S. economy …. This is an important goal considering the contributions such individuals make to entrepreneurship and research and development, which are highly correlated with overall economic growth and job creation. The rule also will bring U.S. immigration policies concerning this class of highly skilled workers more in line with those of other countries that are also competing to attract and retain similar highly skilled workers,” the U.S government had said in 2015, as explanation for its decision.
Since then more than a lakh spouses of those who are waiting for permanent residency in the U.S received Employment Authorization Documents (EAD). The new rule allowed a pool of highly skilled workers to participate in the U.S economy as employees, but people like Mr. Venugopal falls in a distinct category within the cohort - entrepreneurs.
Mr. Venugopal still has his H-1B visa, and can continue to be part of the company even if he loses the H-4 work authorization, but for the Gajera couple, Alpa and Linesh, in Atlanta, Georgia, such a change is dreadful. In the last two years, Mrs. Gajera opened two restaurants in the city using her H4 EAD. “We had ours hearts in business always, but being on H-1B, that was not an option until 2015,” Mr. Gajera said. They bought an American restaurant that was in the red, turned it around with their own hard work, and added another one a year later. “She has been planning to open a third one this year, and that is when this news struck. We are in a limbo. We have already invested all our money and mortgaged our house to raise more money for the business. And now we don’t know what will happen in the next few months,” Mr. Gajera said. All employees in both restaurants are American citizens.
Renju Nataraj, a civil engineering graduate from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, also had the option of working under an H-1B visa, but chose to make use of the H4 EAD to pursue her dream of teaching - part-time at a community college in Indianapolis, Indiana, and running a tutoring business. A resident in America for more than a decade now, her Veda Tutoring has been on an upswing ever since its establishment in 2015. “Teaching is my passion. Evenings and weekends, I teach 27 hours per week at the community college,” she said, point out that under H-1B rules she would have had to work more hours per week to maintain her status.
“What is curious about these people is - these are exactly the kind of people that the President says he wants to bring to America. High-skilled, entrepreneurial and creating jobs in America. Unfortunately, if this move to end H4 EAD goes through, they will be the ones worst affected,” pointed out Rashi Bhatnagar, who spearheaded an online campaign that put the spotlight on the untapped talent pool in the U.S ahead of the 2015 decision.