By Narayan Lakshman in the Hindu
When Pavitra’s Delta Air Lines flight flew into Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on a crisp blue July morning back in 2008, her heart pounded with excitement. Though it was a dangerous time economically and few companies were hiring, her husband landed a good job with a major IT firm and was assigned to projects across the U.S.
Pavitra, who had a bachelor’s degree from India and some work experience, had made a careful plan to embark on a course of higher studies — permitted under her current H-4 visa — and then seek employment. It was all coming together for her, it seemed. But she was in for a rude shock.
Within months of her settling down in a strange new land, she found out that not only were higher studies a financially draining option, given the lack of funding for spouses of H1-B visa-holders, she was also unable to pursue a graduate programme because with her three-year Indian undergraduate degree she was not considered eligible for graduate enrolment in the U.S.
With a paucity of viable alternatives, she turned her attention to the job market, an effort that proved even more futile. “I tried applying for a job but as soon as the recruiters came to know of my H-4 visa status, they would say they do not sponsor H1-B,” Pavitra said.
Matters then took a turn for the worse. Trapped in a labyrinth of visa-related restrictions, she began to feel she had no purpose in life. “I started going through depression, loss of enthusiasm and self-esteem. I started having chronic migraines every day,” she said. As migraine attacks went, hers were so severe that she could not even open her eyes, often threw up, and had chills.
“I had to call my husband every day at work, saying I am ill and he used to come home running. Life for him was very difficult, juggling between work commitments and my doctor visits,” she said. He was unable to look for better work opportunities since he was worried and wanted to look after her.
Now in the midst of a mind-numbing routine of hobbies, she asks herself: “Where am I in my life today? Still a dependent, still need to start my career fresh at this age.” And her future looks cloudy too, as it is a shaky prospect to start and raise a family on a single income, and whenever she tries to get back in the job market, “getting back my self-confidence, independence, self-esteem... [is] going to be a struggle for me.”
If Pavitra’s situation were an idiosyncratic case of misery in the wilderness of American suburbia, it may not be a collective concern. Yet that is not the case and, to be specific, 1,00,000 to 1,50,000 people, mostly women, from India, other parts of Asia and the rest of the world are stuck in this deadening reality of joblessness and social isolation, rapid erosion of self-esteem, and attendant toxic malfunctions in their personal lives.
Let’s step back and consider the facts and numbers in question.
The issue of H-4’s debilitating impact on its holders is not a new one. In fact, writing on cases of abuse of H-4 women by their H1-B husbands in The Hindu in 2008, Shivali Shah, a New York-based lawyer, explained that the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service does not provide H-4 spouses with work authorisation until well into the green card process.
There is no prospect of working on the H-4 visa per se. The State Department’s guidance on a range of non-immigrant visas notes: “A person who has received a visa as the spouse or child of a temporary worker may not accept employment in the U.S. with the exception of spouses of L-1 visa-holders.”
“Therefore, these women are financially dependent on their husbands for anywhere from two to nine years,” Ms. Shah pointed out, adding “H-4 women are middle-class and have status in the U.S., but immigration laws can make them indigent and undocumented at the whims of their husbands.”
So how many individuals are affected by this law? Since around 2004, the USCIS has set the annual cap for H1 visas issued at approximately 65,000. Even if one were to conservatively assume that 50 per cent of these visa-holders were married, it suggests close to 32,500 spouses or partners on H-4 visas a year.
Given that the H-4 visa is often of six-year validity, it would not be far off the mark to assume that there are well over 1,00,000 individuals stuck with this visa, possibly over 1,50,000. Further, the most recent USCIS data quoted in a study by the Brookings Institution suggest that 58 per cent of the H-1B visas are granted to Indians. This means that well over 50,000 Indians are in this position.
This includes only H-1 spouses. There is a host of other visa-types, for example, I-visas for journalists, all of which are subject to the USCIS work ban for their spouses — except L-1s, usually issued for senior executives who are on intra-company transfers from other nations. If the spouses of visa-holders in these categories were also counted, the number of frustrated, but often talented, individuals unable to work would perhaps grow exponentially.
To truly come to grips with the intensity of the problem faced by individuals trapped in the H-4 visa quagmire, a glimpse into the corrosive nature of the visa’s work restrictions is useful.
Rashi Bhatnagar, a H-4 visa-holder in the U.S. who was willing to have her real name used in this story — all others have been changed to respect privacy concerns — set up a Facebook group called ‘H-4 visa, a curse,’ after facing the deadening reality of joblessness, having enjoyed years of a successful career in India. Though she had a master’s degree from India, she had numerous doors of opportunity slammed on her in the U.S. after she had to relocate to this country to join her IT-worker husband.
However, Rashi counts herself among the fortunate few, whose spouses have a senior role, some leverage with their employer and hence some hope for flexibility, such as an early or expedited green card application. For most other “H-4s,” the mathematics of the waiting time for the right to work is debilitating, killing off their most productive work years from their late twenties to late thirties.
In the EB2 category of temporary, non-immigrant workers, a H-4 visa spouse would typically wait for six years before a green card application is made and then potentially another six years for the issuance of the green card. This makes a total of around 12 years, time spent languishing in the aisles of Walmart, making small-talk with vendors on street corners, engaged in the soul-destroying household chores and the limited joys of child-rearing.
In the EB3 category, the six-year wait for the green card process initiation is compounded by an even longer eight-12 year wait for the green card itself, requiring the H-4 visa-holders to hold their life in suspended animation for a staggering 14-18 years. Over the passage of such a length of time, all hope of resuscitating one’s passion to pursue a meaningful career is likely to be extinguished, with only a sense of lonely desperation left in its wake.
To better understand the impact of the U.S.’ H-4 visa, the non-working visa given to the spouse of a work-authorised H-1B visa holder, The Hindu conducted a limited survey via a Facebook page that is a portal for H-4 visa holders. Along with the administrator of that page, Rashi Bhatnagar, who is herself on an H-4 visa, respondents were asked about the circumstances they found themselves in after they arrived in the U.S.
The responses not only hinted at a wide range of personal and health setbacks for female Indian H-4 visa holders but also testified to this visa’s impact on those from other nations, grown children of H-4 visa holders and, in some rare cases, male H-4 visa holders.
Take the case of Kathy, who used to be Senior Principal at a firm in the United Kingdom. After she and her children moved to the U.S. to join her husband, they had to put their oldest daughter through college with absolutely no access to financial aid because they were not permanent citizens of the U.S.
To make matters worse, when her daughter finished college she found herself, like her mother, stuck at home and unable to earn a living using the skills acquired at university. “She sits in her room all day, on her own,” Kathy worried, adding that her daughter had few friends and got very depressed.
Kathy herself fared poorly and it took a drastic toll on her health. Initially she and her daughters had private health insurance, but after she was diagnosed with a pineocytoma, or non-malignant brain tumour, she was dropped from her insurance. Apart from the compelling case that such instances make for reform of the H-4 visa restrictions, they underscore the need for the sort of health insurance reform that President Barack Obama has pushed through. As for Kathy, she and her daughter have no health insurance, no prospect of working and face a daily routine of social isolation and despondence.
Another striking case that the survey revealed was of Rahul, a male H-4 visa holder who followed his IT-professional wife to the U.S. For him, too, the stark reality of U.S. employers’ unwillingness to sponsor an H-1B struck home after many months of a frustrating job search. Cut off from friends and family and no longer the sociable, buoyant person he used to be, Rahul turned to alcohol — at a heavy cost. Caught in a downward spiral of depression, he attempted suicide several times. “I hurt myself very badly during one of these attempts and had to be hospitalised after calling 911,” he said. However, he showed resilience and tried to bounce back from that low point. He returned to India to change his field from sales and marketing and gain a greater IT focus. He even found work in a U.S. firm’s India office in the hope that the firm would apply for a work visa for him.
“Unfortunately the recession hit in 2008 and the company did not do well,” said Rahul. He had to resign himself to the prospect of staying on in India and battling the spectre of alcoholism that had arisen once again, not to mention thoughts of depression and suicide. Meanwhile, his wife and three-year-old child live out their lives in the U.S. without him.
Among most respondents to the Facebook survey, health issues arising from depression and a sense of hopelessness appeared to be common. One respondent, Joyita, said she was constantly visiting neurologists and physical therapists for treatments related to psychological turmoil “which have their roots in H-4 visa’s work restrictions”.
Even where physical symptoms were absent a sense of utter despair replaced the initial optimism that these spouses of H-1B workers had felt. Shauravi, for example, felt that she could not afford an MBA or other professional degree given the lack of funding opportunities. But the alternative, to “be at home for whole day without working and be very dependent to my husband ... has made me very weak just thinking about it”.
Another respondent, Ketaki, worried that the only degree she could afford was of no interest to her and lack of friends and complete dependence on her husband in a new environment had made her lose her self-confidence. Similarly Lavanya, who left a senior post in the Indian government, found herself struggling to keep up her self-esteem when she could not find any job, not even one that required far lower skill levels than those she possessed.
For several survey respondents their vulnerability had led to abuse within the marriage, in some cases resulting in complete familial breakdown. Priya told The Hindu that after suffering numerous beatings by her husband, she managed to file a police complaint and had him arrested. However, because as an H-4 spouse she had no access to bank accounts and other paperwork — all of which were controlled by her husband — she was unable to afford an attorney to fight the case. She was left praying for a denial of visa renewal for her husband for she had no other means to reach out to her family back in India.
A similar case was Poorvi who, despite overcoming financial hurdles and completing a U.S. academic degree, faced marital trouble, loneliness and spousal abuse that ultimately led to divorce.
The severity of personal problems faced by individuals in this position begs the question of why the spouses of H-1B, I, and a range of other visa holders have been denied the right to work, while L-1 visa holders’ spouses were granted the right some time ago,
Sheela Murthy, an expert on immigration law, told The Hindu that there had occasionally been talk in official circles about granting H-4 visa holders the right to work, but “that was before the economy tanked”. Apart from the sheer political pressure that any government would face if it tries to push through such a reform, it could also lead to some uncomfortable questions as to why the spouses of other visa holders — including the A, B, C, D, G, and F visas — could not similarly be given the right to work .
The H-4 case may be a “strong but not a winning argument”, said Ms. Murthy, noting that another fact pertinent to this case was that India ranks among the top 10 nationalities of illegal immigrants in the U.S.
On lobbying the White House and Capitol Hill for relaxing the work restrictions, she said: “I do not think we have been able to make the case clearly and strongly, with statistics and numbers, and have a very limited and strong message, to take up the drumbeat that gets both Houses of Congress on board.” There was still something missing in the strategy and articulation, she suggested.
In the end there is a complex argument to be made that must consider all of the difficult questions relating to the politics of post-recession unemployment, the plight of spouses of other visa holders, and the broader context of comprehensive immigration reform and illegal immigration.
Yet even as the weight of these unanswered questions stalls progress on H-4 visa reform, thousands of individuals in this category will continue to live with their broken dreams.