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H1B workers' spouses on H4 visas 'shocked' at fallout of New York Times story on fate of work permits

A New York Times report on spouses of H1B workers anxious over the fate of their employment authorisation has sparked a scathing riposte from a US based anti-immigration 'think tank' in a story headlined ‘New York Times Urges Sympathy for H-1B Workers in Million-Dollar Homes’.

“I was shocked! This is just the kind of stuff that will fan the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s the last thing we need in this political climate,” says Anuradha, an H1B spouse on an H4 visa in Stamford, Connecticut.

A house on sale in California. Reuters

A house on sale in California. Reuters

The ‘million dollar homes’ headline is “deeply troubling and completely misleading although it represents a real person who actually lives in the US”, says Lakshmi an Atlanta resident whose husband works in the US on an H1B. Lakshmi is on an H4 visa - the subject of the NYT story. H4 visa holders were not allowed to work for pay in America until the Obama government changed the rule in 2015. Within weeks, anti immigration groups filed a case challenging the concession and that case continues till today. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has indicated that it intends to revoke the work permit for H4 spouses although that has not yet happened.

Lakshmi and her husband pay $ 2000 per month as rent for a townhome and have been putting off buying a home although the mortage payment on a much larger house will bring down their cost to about $ 1300 to $ 1500 per month.

“We have decided not to invest as long as we are on temporary visas. Sometimes the cold clarity of our ‘alien’ category helps get our priorities in order. Investing in a million dollar home?! Forget it! That’s stupid, at least for us”, says Lakshmi.

Cost of living varies widely across American cities. Between say, Elizabeth in New Jersey and Sunnyvale, California, there's a nearly 200% difference in housing costs but all things considered, the million dollar price tag is 'rich' by any standards for the 'average' H1B family on a single salary.

The Centre for Immigration Studies (CIS) has taken a sledgehammer to the contradictions between H1B workers paying lush mortage payments in tony neighbourhoods and the idea of an immigrant family working hard and struggling to strike root in a foreign country.

The NYT tells the story of H4 dependent spouse through the experiences of a California resident who reveals details of her monthly mortgage payment - $ 4,800.

The $ 4,800 number is the only house mortgage payment that is mentioned in the NYT longform but that’s more than enough red meat for the opposition in a country where a home purchase has long been celebrated as the sign of having truly arrived. That’s precisely what has happened here, setting off alarm bells in the H4 community.

CIS pounces on the math and takes the $ 4800 to its approximate total sunk cost: “Let's use the mortgage payment to put this picture in perspective. According to one of those handy mortgage payment calculators on the internet, a $4,800 a month mortgage payment, at current rates, would cover a $1,036,458 mortgage at 30 years, or a $683,110 mortgage at 15 years.”

Armed with these remarkable numbers, CIS questions the economic rationale of the H4 EAD and why American workers need to “worry about the financial mistreatment of people living in $1,150,000 houses”.

“What portion of the overall U.S. population lives in $1,150,000 houses?”, asks CIS.

“Exactly! We don’t live in mansions. Mortgage payments of $ 4,800 misrepresent the H1B worker and stories that highlight a single Californian family in a luxe area creates needless trouble for our community. We are dealing with enough already,” says Nandini Shankar, another H4 spouse.

"We are paying $ 2600 for our one bedroom apartment in Bay Area. We can't even think of moving to a two bedroom apartment let alone buying a house," says Sumi, also on H4.

Given the average salary levels for the bulk of H1B workers, the all American million dollar home is not par for the course for the 'average' H1B family. Exceptions, of course, apply as you trace salary growth progression on the H1B ladder, qualifications, Master's degree or not and so on.

Yet, economic anxiety of Americans who lost jobs coming off the worst recession in history put Donald Trump in the White House and those same forces are very much in play here.

Reactions to the NYT story and the associated backlash are coming thick and fast in messaging groups.

“Let’s get this straight, guys”, begins one thread. “They shouldn’t have bought that McMansion on a temporary visa. End of story”.

Quick comes the reply. “Agreed. But nearly 4 million Indians live in the US. How can one mortgage payment on the West Coast represent the living standards of tens of thousands of H1B workers in America? Terrible math.”

Indians win the lions share of the yearly quota of 85,000 H1B visas which allow US companies to hire foreign workers. This visa category has come in for tough treatment after Trump's ascent to the White House in 2016. Trump's backers say they want to fix flaws in the employment based immigration process and also advocating for a complete overhaul of America's immigration system.

H1B critics abound and they argue that these visas are a way for companies to avoid hiring U.S. citizens; Trump himself has said that H1B recipients shouldn't even be considered skilled.


Updated Date: Apr 14, 2018 04:21 AM

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