Life’s a Full Stop For Women with H-4 US Visas

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By Elsa Sherin Mathews, Womens Feature Service

“Long hours in front of the television,” is how Ruchi Singh, 27, a trained fashion designer, describes her daily routine in the US. “Once my husband leaves in the morning, I have nothing much to do. I spend my day surfing the net for new recipes and news from India and, of course, watching television,” she elaborates.

Singh once had a hectic professional life, as a finance executive with a multi-national company in India. However, marriage to her college sweetheart, a software engineer in Philadelphia, changed everything. “I was looking forward to a new kind of workplace here. However, the H-4 visa doesn’t permit me to work,” rues Singh, who came to the US in 2007. After the initial period of settling down, when she ventured into the job market, she realised her H-4 visa status was a chief impediment to her being a professional.

“Job hunting has been a frustrating experience. Companies turn me down not only because of my visa status but also because they think that my Indian qualifications don’t match up to the US job market,” she says. Singh is now planning to do a course in Information and Technology (IT).

Singh’s H-4 visa, also known as a ‘dependent’ visa, can be converted into an H-1B – a working visa – but there are many hurdles. She would have to find an employer/company that would be willing to declare to the authorities that she is the most suitable candidate for the job – that they couldn’t find any US national to fill the post.

Every year, thousands of Indian women – many of them qualified professionals – join their husbands in the US. But they really have nothing to do there. The world knows about the millions of illegal immigrants in the US and the problems they face, but the case of H-4 visa holders is largely overlooked. An H-4 visa holder is not only denied the right to work but also to obtain a Social Security Number (SSN), which is essential for opening a bank account and obtaining a driving licence.

The only way out is the H-1B visa route, but it is an extremely difficult one. Each year, there are a fixed number of H-1B visas issued by the US immigration office. As of May 1 2009, the numerical cap set for H-1B visas was at 45,000 for the current year.

For an IT professional or an MBA holder, the odds are relatively better than, say, for a primary school teacher. The solution to this would be to get a US education, but that is very expensive and most women on an H-4 visa don’t even consider it.

“It is difficult, nearly impossible to find a job if your field is non-technical,” says Deepa Nair, who worked as a lecturer of English in Delhi University before she got married and shifted to San Francisco a year ago. “Entering academics is a tough call and is only possible if one enters a US university for a higher degree,” elaborates Deepa, who now spends her time reading, catching up on news, going out on walks and dong volunteer work.

Talking of her friends, she observes that “many feel wasted because of the visa situation. Some go ahead and look for alternatives, while others become full time homemakers. This is a visa situation unique to the US. It handicaps a lot of people (especially women).”

The limitations that the H-4 visa puts on a woman’s freedom can take a turn for the worse if she becomes a victim of domestic abuse, which has been the concern of Shivali Shah, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration attorney. Shah co-founded Kiran: Domestic Violence and Crisis Service for South Asians in 2000, while she was still a law student at Duke Law school in North Carolina. “While helping battered South Asian women there, I found that a disproportionately high number of them were on the H-4 visa,” she reveals. Shah has been championing the cause of battered women on the H-4 visa since then.

“If a battered woman on the H-4 visa wants independence, we try to help her convert to an H-1B work visa or to a student visa. However, they are difficult to obtain, as the H-1B visa is constructed in such a way that the woman effectively needs her husband’s approval to convert,” explains Shah.

This lawyer-cum-social worker made a breakthrough of sorts in 2005 with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA 2005). “A provision in VAWA 2005 allows battered H-4 visa holders to apply for work authorisation,” says Shah. However, VAWA hasn’t come into force yet, as immigration officials haven’t issued any regulations for it.

Besides aiding battered H-4 visa holders, Shah routinely helps non-battered H-4 visa holders to navigate the job market and negotiate their visa status with their prospective employers.

At a psychological level, being on an H-4 visa results in a loss of self-esteem and leads to, as Shah puts it, a power imbalance in the marriage imposed by government laws. “Men on the H1-B visa tend to marry women whom they see as vivacious and independent. But everything changes when the wife joins the husband in the US on an H-4 visa. A lot of men feel cut off from their partner as they are not able to understand her internal emotions,” explains Shah.

These emotions can range from self-anger to suicidal tendencies. Meghna Damani, 33, a filmmaker based in New Jersey, who arrived in the US on an H-4 visa, would confirm the latter. Her autobiographical film ‘Heart’s Suspended’ has been much appreciated in the US. The film also received a ‘Special Jury Mention’ at the Jeevika Film Festival, New Delhi, in September 2008.

A Masters in Marketing from Sydenham Institute of Marketing, Mumbai, Damani was greatly disappointed by the rejection she faced from US companies. With no change in the situation for over five years, the isolation and dependency led to depression. “When I was in Pennsylvania, I used to volunteer at a shelter for victims of domestic abuse as it was the only option I had. I trained to become a counsellor there, but could not be hired because of my visa. This affected my confidence and my depression was aggravated. I started having suicidal thoughts. I started feeling guilty about things like eating out,” recalls Damani, who eventually turned to Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism and became part of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) in the US.

She got strength from her Buddhist practice and later took a Graduate Documentary Filmmaking from The New School, New York, and then went on to make ‘Heart’s Suspended’. Damani received her Employment Authorization Document (EAD) in November 2007, a day after her documentary was screened at the Mahindra IAAC festival in New York. She now hopes to hold screenings all over the US and raise awareness about this unspoken issue.

Women are reluctant to talk about the limitations of the H-4 visa for fear of derailing their Green Card applications. But Shah quickly lays such fears at rest, “It is a misconception that speaking about the injustice of the H-4 visa will jeopardise chances of obtaining a Green Card or U.S. citizenship.”

Perhaps spreading awareness is the only way to deal with the problems that are connected with the very common H-4 Visa. It will lead to the enforcement of initiatives like Shah’s VAWA 2005 and make it easier for women with these visas to lead full and normal lives in the US.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.