April 19, 2001
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The Rediff US Special/Aseem Chhabra

'A terrible visa which inherently isolates women'

Recently Krishna Challasani was watching a television documentary on Chinese immigration to the United States. The 29-year-old software developer saw a lot of parallels between his life today, as an H1-B visa worker in Virginia, and Chinese migrant farmers in California in the late 19th century.

"There were a lot of restrictions on them," Krishna says, referring to the Chinese workers. "It was more than 100 years ago, and they were not allowed to bring their wives, neither could they marry here. I feel that it is very much what I am experiencing now."

But the parallels are not altogether the same. As an H1-B visa worker, Krishna, who has lived in the US for less than three years, had the option of marrying and bringing his wife from India on an H4 visa. In fact, he was engaged to be married, but he decided to break the engagement

"I could have brought my wife on H4, but she wouldn't have been able to work," Krishna says. "And what's the big deal if I made $55,000. It would be stressful if you were on bench. I told them (the girl's family) that it was not a good situation here and she would also appreciate not getting into such a situation."

Krishna's decision may have saved the woman he was supposed to marry from having to cope with the stress of living in the US as a spouse of an H-1B visa worker.

As the new economy undergoes a downward trend, and more and more high tech companies announce layoffs and hiring freezes, news reports have focused on the plight of H-1B workers, who were brought to the US in the last few years to fuel the booming engine.

But less attention has been focused on the personal decisions and sacrifices the H-1B visa workers -- most of them in their mid to late-20s -- have had to make. Some have postponed getting married, while others have hastened their wedding plans, so as to apply for green cards. And then there are cases of the silent partners of the H-1B workers -- their H4 spouses. Since the visa does not give them a right to work in the US, a lot of them have had to make compromises and give up their careers which they were pursuing in their home countries.

In 1997 Venkat Reddy was 24 and engaged to be married to Radha, a recent medical school graduate in Hyderabad. When his employer in Connecticut started to sponsor him for a green card, Venkat hastened the marriage by a few months so that Radha's application could be filed along with his. Radha cut short her medical internship to be in the US with her husband.

"We come to the US and suddenly we are stuck with fact that priorities dates for Indians have changed and we have to wait for a year," Venkat says. "So hastening the marriage did not help."

With her career on hold here in the US, Radha decided to return to India to complete her internship and the newly married couple was separated for seven months. In between Radha made one more trip to the US -- this time to be fingerprinted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We were married and then separated," Venkat says. "The whole affect was that it delayed her residency by a year as she had to keep going back and forth to India, to finish her internship. And she had go through a lot of bureaucracy in India, each time she made a trip to the US."

Three years ago Vibha Bakshi, then a newly married bride, arrived in New York with her husband Vishal. While Vishal, who is 29, was admitted to Columbia University's graduate business school program on a student visa, Vibha attended a diploma course on broadcasting at New York University. But the diploma did not give her a practical training visa.

"When I came here, I was a dependent on my husband," Vibha, 30, says from her home in Manhattan. Prior to her marriage, Vibha had worked in television broadcasting in Mumbai for six years. Her last position -- a presenter/reporter for CNBC's Asia Bureau.

"I know it (her H4 visa) is a courtesy given by the country for me to enter. What happens to spouses is that, yes you can enter the country. You can be physically present. But there is nothing else you can do."

Then last year Vishal joined the investment banking firm of Goldman Sachs, after the company sponsored him for an H-1B visa. As Vibha, started to interview with public relations firms, she realized the limitations imposed on her by the her H4 visa.

"I ventured out in the market, and because I had American education (in the early 1990's she received an undergraduate degree in communications from Boston University), the doors did open for me," Vibha says.

"I could have applied for an H-1B if a company was willing to sponsor me," she says. "First, last year the quota ran out (last year's cap of 115,000 H-1B visas expired in March 2000). I did have a few job offers with public relation firms, but once they knew that I needed an H-1B, the story changed."

"When you get a job, you tell them that you will start three or four months later (the average time period required for the H-1B visa to be approved). They find that very difficult to comprehend and I am totally with them on it. I knew that I was qualified. I knew I had gotten selected. But I also knew because of my H4 status, they were not willing to give me the jobs."

Since her husband earns a comfortable living, there is no immediate financial pressure for Vibha to work. She also knows that in another couple of years Vishal's green card will come through. And so Vibha will put her career on hold for a few more years. Others may not be that lucky.

"It is terrible visa and it inherently isolates women," says Soniya Munshi, a volunteer with Manavi, a New Jersey-based non-profit group that assists women in domestic violence. "You are not allowed to get involved in anything and it is set up for the woman to be totally dependent on their husband."

As the number of H-1B immigrants workers has increased over the past few years, Manavi and its sister organizations have noticed a steady increase in domestic violence cases affecting the H4 visa wives.

Although no patterns of domestic abuse among H-1B/H4 families have emerged, it is clear that the stresses of a shifting to a new country is a huge factor.

"I don't think that's what causing it," Soniya says. "I think it makes domestic violence easier to happen. Most of the woman are so new and generally do not know their husbands really well, since they have been married very recently. So they are not familiar with their spouse and often language is a barrier."

"Since most of the H4 visa holders are new to the country they are generally not familiar with the systems here, like legal protection they can access," Soniya adds. "H4 visa holders can access restraining orders, they can get support."

However most H4 visa holders have limited options. For instance, while a wife of an H-1B visa worker can get a restraining order against her husband and exclude him from the house, she has no way to support herself.

"There is complete economic and immigration status dependence on the husbands," Soniya says. "Even if the woman was ready to leave and ready to try to do something different, she is completely bound by this (the H4 visa) immigration status."

In some instances Manavi has assisted women in shifting their immigration status -- either to a student or to an H-1B visa. But this assumes that the woman can pay for her education or has the skills to find a job and an employer willing to sponsor her for an H-1B visa.

(Some of the names have been changed in this article.)

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