When Tech Workers Arrive On Visa, What About Their Spouses? : Code Switch This week, spouses of high-tech foreign workers got some good news. The federal government will begin offering them work permits.
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When Tech Workers Arrive On Visa, What About Their Spouses?

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When Tech Workers Arrive On Visa, What About Their Spouses?

When Tech Workers Arrive On Visa, What About Their Spouses?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Obama Administration announced yesterday that starting this spring, spouses of certain foreign workers can also apply for jobs. A lot of American tech companies hire people who come here on a special visa. Their spouses though, mostly wives, have not been allowed to work in the U.S. Liz Jones of member station KUOW has more from Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKERS: Three, two, one.

LIZ JONES, BYLINE: Two young guys face off in a cafeteria on Microsoft's main campus near Seattle. Their challenge? Who can eat the most panipuri, a popular Indian snack. Upasana Kone cheers them on. She helped organize this fundraiser for kids in India.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UPASANA KONE: Come on.

JONES: Kone is 26. She has a master's in business. And about a year ago, she moved from South India to Seattle. Outside, Indian coworkers stroll by. Kone blends right in, except the thing is she doesn't work here. She can't. Her visa only allows her to live in this country, not work here.

KONE: Some people don't understand the visa issue so they constantly pit you against woman of your age and say, hey, look at her she's moving on. It's not that it's my personal choice that I'm not working.

JONES: Kone came to the U.S. after she got married. Her husband's an engineer at Microsoft. He's here on what's called an H-1B visa for high-skilled foreign workers. It's estimated more than half a million workers are in the U.S. on these visas at any given time.

KONE: But what about their spouses? It hurts your self-esteem, your independency - it kind of kills your confidence, slowly but surely it does.

JONES: Most H-1B workers come from India. The federal program allows them to bring spouses and children here, but rules have prohibited the spouses from working even though many are also high-skilled. Kone worked as a public relations executive in India. She knew about the restrictions before she moved here but thought she'd find a way around. She misses her career and the extra money to help out her parents.

KONE: It's my responsibility that I take care of them. That's something which I feel bad about.

JONES: Kone knows women in her situation who've given up on careers or become depressed. She's seen marriages crumble. One option for Kone is to return to India alone.

KONE: But you know, the question of going back to India, first of all, is morally, culturally and socially unacceptable.

JONES: A long-distance marriage is far from the Indian way. Yet, plenty of spouses in this bind have taken the leap. Immigration attorney Tahmina Watson meets a lot of high-tech couples dealing with this issue. She sees some wives try for the same H-1B work visa as their husbands.

TAHMINA WATSON: You know, it's a lottery. How can people compete with that?

JONES: A lottery for a limited number of visas. And lately, demand has shot up. Watson says tech spouses want a better solution.

WATSON: There has been a consistent push to the administration to allow spouses to have work permits.

JONES: And now it's happening. The Department of Homeland Security announced it'll start taking applications for work permits in May. It's expected up to 180,000 spouses would initially qualify - then around 50,000 more each year after. But some spouses will still face a long wait. That's because they need to be at a certain point in their green card process, and it often takes several years to get there. Back at Microsoft's main campus, the food competition winds down. This week's rule change will likely help Kone get a work permit, but it's still not a sure thing, so she hunts for a plan B and sometimes at night, wakes up her husband...

KONE: ...And say, hey, what if we moved to U.K.? He's like, sleep. (Laughter). I'm like, I'll go to Singapore. He's like, OK, we will talk about it (laughter).

JONES: Maybe now they'll both get a little more sleep. For NPR News, I'm Liz Jones in Seattle.

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