The South Asian Times

18 August 2019 23:51 PM

Languishing in a golden cage

By Jinal Shah

Even as the comprehensive immigration reform proposal stumbling on Capitol Hill, defying  President Obama who wants to push it by the end of this year. The Republican led House is considering a piecemeal and conditional approach in offering a path to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented immigrants, there is a group of people, mostly legal immigrant women, waiting for policymakers to take action on a less controversial piece of the reform bill.

One of those women is Rashi Bhatnagar, 30, an Indian national who came to the US in 2009. A lifestyle journalist with an international magazine publishing group in India, she had married a long distance boyfriend she was dating for four years. He was granted H1B - a visa given to highly skilled workers in demand in the US. And she got dependent visa - H4.

Every day while he goes to work as an IT professional, Rashi engages in soul-destroying household chores, kills time in the aisles of department stores, and hits the gym 3-4 times a day. For many, her life maybe enviable but she feels “trapped in a golden cage.” Investing in a master’s degree made no sense because she already had one from India. Testing the job market proved futile as companies refused to sponsor H1B visa without Employment Authorization Document (EAD) issued by the USCIS.

“Imagine that you are moving to a foreign land with your spouse. After you arrive, you are confined to the four walls. Your immigration status makes you ineligible for a work permit, and so, you cannot get a credit card or a driving license, or open a bank account, without the H1B's consent, or rent an apartment, or take a student loan, or buy a car. Imagine that four years later you are still waiting for those basic rights. That’s my world,” laments Rashi Bhatnagar, echoing countless other H4 wives who are politically nonexistent, and thus powerless to ask for what is a basic human right - the right to be self-sufficient. 

Rashi continues, “Although I was aware that I’d not be able to work here on H4 visa, I didn't know it then that the dependent stamp on my passport will strip me of my independence for years to come. Nobody told me consequences of coming on H visa - long EAD wait due to the retrogression of visa dates, no protection laws, no student loans, no scholarships, and immigration related frauds.”

Rashi’s not an idiosyncratic case of misery in the wilderness of American suburbia, there are 100,000 to 150,000 people - mostly women and children from Asia stuck in this deadening reality of joblessness, social isolation, and rapid erosion of self-esteem. They have a legal status, they pay taxes, they contribute to social security, but they are involuntarily home bound.

To understand the conundrum of H4 visa holders, it is important to first know about H1B visa. Issued for six years (three plus extension), H1B allows US employers to temporarily employ foreign skilled workers in specialty fields. The H1B visa holder does not have the right to vote but has to pay taxes.

Each year there are 65,000 H1’s issued in the US. Even if we take a conservative estimate of about 50% of them being married, there are more than 32,000 dependents entering US from various countries including India and China. These are mainly women, mostly qualified and talented, employable but unemployed. 

H1B visa holder can apply for permanent residency in the US but has to wait for years  “Under the employment based (EB) 2 category the wait for green card is  between 5-12 years whereas on the lower EB3 category the wait time is 8-15 years. Now add six years of being on H-1B category to that. This long wait really takes away the peer years from the H4 visa holders,” explains Rashi.

Endless wait and lack of second income often puts strain on married life. “When it becomes difficult to run a family on single income, many times the girl’s parents have been asked to pay for her upkeep in the US,” said Shivali Shah, attorney and advocate for the rights of H4 visa holders.
Many even invest in the insanely expensive master’s program. Not only are they ineligible for student loan they are not even allowed to work part time on-campus. And after all the pain and expense to get a US degree, you are still in a limbo not even eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT), something that students on F1 (full time) or even M visa (part time) enjoy. OPT is a great way for students to display their talent and skills to the employer not having to worry about sponsorship.

With utter frustration, these women are often forced to take an illegal route – doing short courses and faking resumes to get jobs. “Honest H1B families don't favor converting  H4 into H1B by showing fake resumes. Many IT job consultants do such illegal stuff and recruit immigrants in dire need of jobs,” added Rashi.

Most of the H4’s are highly educated and some with business acumen. They can be entrepreneurs, can create job, curb outsourcing of jobs, fill in the shortage of high skilled work force - engineers, doctors, researchers, educators, innovators etc.  “Even if we agree to the argument that immigrants come here and take away jobs from local Americans and hence not allowing H4’s to apply for jobs, there is no reason why they cannot start their own business. After all it will only boost the economy. I have had discussions with H4 visa holders who agree that instead of dumping wealth back in their home country - buy gold, shares even property -- they are willing to invest here in a business, hire more people and hamper illegal work,” proposed Rashi.

The law according to these spouses is unfair and biased especially when compared to other legal dependents who are allowed to work and get Social Security Number. “Dependents on L, E and H visa all enter US with the same identity ‘Dependents’- then why are spouses on L visa holders (usually executives and managers who come to the US for a relatively shorter period but are eligible to apply for green card) and E (investor) visa granted work permit? We are not asking for citizenship like illegal immigrants, all we are asking is a chance to stand in line for jobs. Rest all depends on our skill and expertise. We are ready to wait but the law should be equal for all legal dependents,” asserts Rashi.  

To truly come to grips with the intensity of the problem faced by individuals trapped in the H-4 visa quagmire, Rashi set up a Facebook group called ‘H-4 visa, a curse.’ The group, started in 2011, has more than 4,000 members mostly H4’s and their spouses from China, Philippines, Mexico, Spain, UK, Greece, Ukraine, and Pakistan besides India.

“A lot of these members are victims of domestic violence, immigration fraud (duped by IT job consultants) and suffer from problems such as depression and suicidal tendencies,” informed Rashi. 
Shivali Shah adds another dimension to the issue:  “By taking away the choice to work, these women are essentially being brought into the US for their most basic functions as women: housewives, baby makers and sex partners.” 

The consequences are often tragic because many men abuse the power given to them by the law: some wives get only weekly allowances for food; others are forbidden from calling their families back home or taking hobby classes, many are even silent victims of domestic violence and in extreme cases mental and physical abuse.  Depending on their husbands for absolutely everything, including the right to remain in the United States, many women are forced to stay in marriages they desperately need to escape.

“Another problem is that most of the South Asian H-1B/H-4 marriages are new so the woman is cut off from all the social networks back home. In the US, she must rely completely on her husband for everything. In cases of abuse, he may not be her best ally,” adds Shivali. She however explains that the emotional trauma, the tension between the couple or family is not the fault of the US government but the law puts the dependent on a disadvantage.  “The minute a woman steps foot in the US on an H-4 visa, she has an inferior status in the marriage by law. This power imbalance even messes with many marriages.”

In the fight to secure work authorization to spouses on H4 visa, another small section of dependents  are often left behind – the children of H1B visa holders. Recently, children of illegal immigrants who were minors at the time of their entry to US are allowed to stay in the country, issued work permits, whereas H4 dependent kids are forced to move back to their native countries after they attain 21 years of age. “These kids are brought legally as babies by their highly skilled parents. Legal H1B parent pay taxes and respect law of the land. For these kids, US is their mother land, they sing US national anthem and respect the American flag. Despite this Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) rule is giving work permits to the eligible kids of undocumented workers who came illegally to the US.” 

Update: 05 Nov, 2013