Involuntary Housewife Status: The H-4 Visa
by Shivali Shah
"Back in India, I earned my own money and lived a royal life. Today, I have to look to my husband even for one dollar when I want to buy a pack of fries," says Mona.Mona is one of thousands of Indian women on the H-4 visa who have left their own careers behind to follow their H-1B visa-holding husbands' careers to the U.S.
Spouses of H-1B visa holders are granted H-4 visas, which allows them to reside in the United States but does not allow them to do much else.
Without work authorization, social security numbers and, in many states, drivers' licenses, each year a new batch of H-4 women find that the careers they worked hard to prepare for either languish for years at a time or die altogether.
Most H-4s are women and a little less than half are from India.
Most Indian H-4 wives either worked back home or expected to have a professional career as married women.
Mona, 26, has a bachelor's degree in electrical and electronics engineering from BMS College of Engineering in Bangalore.
I met her in connection with the H Visa Survey in which I am surveying and interviewing H-1B and H-4 visa holders.
Mona had been doing software testing and quality assurance in Bangalore for two years when she and Sameer met through an advertisement on the Internet.
Sameer was already working in a Boston suburb on an H-1B visa as a software consultant. After a six-month romance over the Internet and telephone, they fell in love, married, and Mona moved to the United States.
Through my H visa survey and my advocacy work at several battered women's organizations, I have surveyed or talked to approximately 100 H-4 women.
Like Mona, most women surveyed, knew they couldn't work on an H-4 visa, but expected to find employment sponsorship once here.
To work legally, Mona must first obtain work authorization in one of three ways. She can apply for jobs with an employer that would not only hire her, but is also willing and able to sponsor her H-1B visa.
Alternatively, she could wait until her husband's employer decides whether or not to sponsor him for a green card. Several steps and at least one year into the process, she could apply for an Employment Authorization Document. With the decrease in tech jobs, many employers delay beginning the green card process, sometimes into the fifth or the sixth years an H-1B visa may be granted. Finally, she could wait until their green cards are approved. From the day an H visa holder lands in the United States, getting a green card in hand can take anywhere from one year to nine years.
Finding an employer to sponsor her own H-1B visa has been challenging for many hopeful H-4 wives.
With a bachelor's degree and two years work experience in software testing, Mona had a good shot at qualifying for an H-1B visa.
"I was under the impression that I am a qualified person with some good work experience. This will help me sooner or later, to get sponsorship for work," Mona said.Once in the United States however, she faced a sagging economy and grim job prospects.
More than two years later Mona is still unemployed.
"It is easier to get a job but not sponsorship for H-1B visa," Mona says.Aparna, 31, found that some employers would not take her Indian work experience into account. Since her husband was already working, she was also limited to searching for a job locally.
"When Amar was looking for job, he had the whole of America to choose from. Now that we are in Burlington, Vermont, I am stuck looking here only. Here there is nothing but roads and trees, how can I find a job to sponsor me?" she wonders.Other H-4 women do not have the appropriate qualifications to be sponsored for an H-1B visa. To qualify, a foreign national must have, at minimum, a bachelor's degree or the equivalent.
Leela, 22, was working towards her Bachelor's degree in law when she married and moved to N.Y.
She intended to work post-marriage, but could not get H-1B sponsorship without a college degree.
"Before coming here, I didn't know you had to get permission to work," says Leela. "In India, you are born and you work, you don't have to ask the government. If I knew, I might have done things differently."Benefits of Not Working
Most survey participants could not list any benefits to not working, giving answers such as "Is this question a joke?" However, some have taken advantage of their involuntary housewife status by taking up a new hobby or volunteering at community organizations.
"It is not everyday that you are told you must not work," says Sharanjeet, 29, who was a career woman for four years before marriage. In the United States for three years, she has taken up photography and painting.
Sharanjeet adds "these [hobbies] were too expensive in India, but here classes and materials are very affordable."
Some find that getting an advanced degree helps their job prospects. Atefa spent two years looking for work and then decided to go back to school. Within six months of graduating from her master's program, she was sponsored for an H-1B visa. Going to school, however, is a privilege reserved for those who can afford the tuition.
When Leela interrupted her studies to marry and move to the United States, she always had in her mind to finish her degree here, but found tuition to be too expensive for their one income lifestyle. "With only $50,000 salary, and having to support family back in India, we cannot afford it."
Some women opt to take jobs paid in cash to supplement the family income. Ruchira, who worked as an investment planner in Mumbai, is paid for babysitting services in the suburbs of Connecticut. Without work authorization, however, some are subject to the same indignities as undocumented immigrants.
Julie, an accountant, worked in a motel as part of the housecleaning staff. She left the job after being repeatedly sexually harassed by a co-worker. If she reports the abuse, she leaves herself vulnerable to retaliation.
Working without authorization can have adverse effects on immigration status including jeopardizing any future green card application. Some take the time to start families.
"Me and my [H-4] girlfriends all laugh and say 'well, I'm not doing anything else, let me have babies,'" says Vinapani, 31.After having two children, Vinapani enjoys being able to take care of her kids herself. Such benefits, however, are only for those who can afford them. Mona has also been encouraged to have children by her family in India, but is reluctant at this stage in the immigration process:
"When I am not able to help myself or help my husband when he is in financial and health emergencies, how can I think of bringing one more soul to life and make him/her struggle with us?"The names of the individuals in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.
Shivali Shah is a N.Y. based lawyer and co-founder / board member of Kiran: Domestic Violence and Crisis Services for South Asians in North Carolina, www.kiraninc.org. She currently teaches at Rutgers University. If you are interested in participating in the H Visa Survey, please visit: www.hvisasurvey.org.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.