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.