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Studying US policy that affects highly skilled South Asian workers

Sociology researcher’s work led to President Obama changing the rules


Pallavi Banerjee’s research has focused on gender, race and class dynamics among globally mobile South Asian families. In particular, she provides critical feminist analysis of the global migration of highly-skilled Indian workers and their families and the effects of US visa policies on these families, which has directly affected US immigration policy for highly-skilled temporary workers.

By Jennifer Allford

While Pallavi Banerjee was working on her PhD in sociology at the University of Illinois, she started studying a US immigration policy that affects highly skilled workers from India. The ‘dependent visa’ policy, which has been in place for 20 years, severely limits what the workers’ spouses are able to do in the US. 

Banerjee compared ‘male-led’ with ‘female-led’ migration. While female nurses are among the highly skilled workers who migrate to the US, most of these workers from India are men and 75 per cent of dependent visa holders are women.

“The policy disallows spouses of these highly skilled workers to work in the United States for the duration of the visa,” says Banerjee, who is writing a book based on her research. “In some cases the spouses are not allowed to drive or have any US government-issued identification. This affected the gender relations within families and how the main workers were treated at work and in social settings.”

Banerjee’s research attracted a lot of attention and was cited by the White House in 2015 when then president, Barack Obama, signed an executive order relaxing the rule. “The order would allow the spouses to get a work permit once the main worker had completed the first step of permanent residency,” she says. “That takes at least six years from arriving in the US.” With the new administration in the White House “there is a lot of talk” this change will be reversed, she says.

In the meantime, many immigrant Indians are beginning to leave the US and go back to India. Banerjee has started looking at why. “It’s a mix of a few things,” she says. One factor is the general anti-immigration environment in the White House and another is the “draconian” and sometimes decades-long process facing migrants from India who seek permanent residency.

The US prioritizes migrants from different countries. Canadians and Western Europeans are at the top of the list. People from India and China are further down and it can take 20 years or more for them to work through the system.

“My research focuses on how internationally mobile bodies are controlled, shaped and reconfigured by policies of governments, sorted by the interacting forces of race, class, gender, religions and nationality,” says Banerjee. “It tells us how people are being redirected to certain kinds of life experiences because of these policies and the social, political and economic inequities they create.”

A key component of the Faculty of Arts Internationalization Strategy: Engaged Citizenship in a Changing World is international engagement of Faculty of Arts researchers and the worldwide impact of their work. Learn more about goal #4 of the strategy: Increase the international dimension of research in arts.