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How dependent visa shatters the American dream

July 02, 2014 22:23 IST

The US dependent visa puts many restrictions on the spouses, mostly women, of the skilled workers who have an H1-B visa. Some even felt like they were thrown back into a model of the ‘traditional family’ where women are not valued at all outside of the home.

The new proposal to partially change the H-4 visa law is a small step in the right direction, says Pallavi Banerjee

When Tina left for India in 1999 with her husband on a dependent (H-4) visa, she had big dreams.

An MBA and a certified accountant who managed a team of 50 in a multinational company, what could stop her from making it ‘in the land of opportunity’?

In just a few months, she realised that the American dream was not for her -- she was in the United States on a dependent visa.

The dependent visa sets Tina and thousands like her back 60 years where they are forced to stay home and be a housewife almost always against their wishes.

It is hard to believe that for more than 20 years now, the US has been creating families where one person is forced to be a legal dependent.

So, how does this happen?

The US corporations claim there is a shortage of high-skilled workers in the US because the country does not produce enough computer engineers, analysts, programmers, engineers and doctors to meet the needs of the high-tech labour markets.

The US government tries to solve this problem by allowing US businesses to hire high-tech workers from other countries by granting H1-B non-immigrant visas to individuals from other countries seeking temporary work in  ‘specialty occupations’.          

These visas allow US companies to employ a foreign individual for up to six years with the possibility of permanent residency.

To further entice migrant high-skilled workers to leave their homeland and come to the US, they offer H-4 dependent visas to their spouses and children.

Indian high-tech companies have the largest suppliers of high-skilled workers to the US, making India one of the largest recipients of the H1-B visas and thereby the H-4/dependent visas.

Last year, as per US Department of Homeland Security statistics, 65 per cent of all H1-B visa holders (153,223) and 74 per cent of all dependent or H-4 visa holders (96,753) were from India.

While the dependent visa ensures that the families of temporary workers can be together, the dependent visa laws are less than ideal.

The dependent visa puts many restrictions on the spouses, mostly women, of the skilled workers who have an H1-B visa.

The dependent visa holder is not allowed to work for pay until the lead migrant has gained permanent residency in the US, a process that can take six years or more.

In my research on families with an H1-B/H-4, I found that most adult recipients of the H-4 dependent visas are highly qualified women.

They experienced a loss of dignity and self-deprecation.

Some women told me they felt they were thrown back into a model of the ‘traditional family’ where women are not valued at all outside of the home.

They talked about being rendered invisible, feeling lost, and for some, suicidal.

One of my study informants described her H-4 visa as a “vegetable visa meant to make you vegetate”. Others called it a “prison” or “bondage” visa.

In my interviews with the couples in these families, the wives reported about obsessively doing housework as a coping mechanism to deal with their dependency.

The husbands on the other hand complained about not having enough time with their spouses and children because of their work demands.

Even in the few families where men were on dependent visas, the relationship between the spouses was tenuous at best. In these families, the wives who were the main breadwinners, to maintain the semblance of a traditional family, still did majority of the household work despite having full-time jobs and a dependent husband at home.

But even besides the ‘right to work’ issue, grave concerns still remain regarding how H-4 visa holders are treated beyond their family lives.

I found in my research that H-4 visa holders are made to feel “dehumanised” and “invisible” (in the words of H-4 visa holders I interviewed) not only because it takes away the right to work from them, but because it also prohibits them from having an identity outside of their spouses’ identities.

They are not issued social security numbers or given any state-issued identification. In the states where they are allowed to drive, the drivers’ license specifies that it is ‘Not Valid for Identification’.

These restrictions contribute to creating a type of dependence that goes beyond just not being able to work.

Denial of identity by the state can in some cases be psychologically debilitating -- causing many of these families to return or break. These issues need attention as well.

Under the current law once the main migrant gains permanent residency in the US, the dependent spouse would be allowed employment.

But gaining permanent residency could take a decade or more. This means the dependent spouse will be legally unable to work for many long years.

Some of the women I spoke to simply could not handle their situation and decided to return to India.

One high-tech worker who recently went through divorce told me, “We had absolutely no problem as a couple, it’s this visa situation… She was unhappy and depressed and it was not going to get better. We had to take the very hard and cruel way out -- the many pains of being a foreign worker.”

The US government finally seems to realize that the dependent visa policy is not working. It is clear to them that H-4 visas are an impediment to attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign workers.

If the US has to retain high-skilled workers they would need to change the law.

On May 6, the Department of Homeland Security announced its proposal for extending work permits to the dependent spouses of H1-B visa holders in hope of attracting and retaining these temporary migrant professionals.

This law, if passed, has huge implications for highly skilled workers and their families. The spouses of these workers will be able to obtain work permits after the completion of the first step towards permanent residency.

Given that dependent visas create fractured and gender unequal families as my study indicates, the DHS proposal to partially change the dependent visa law is certainly a step in the right direction. However, it is important to note that this is only a small step.

The proposal, if passed, will help retain some of the migrant high-skilled workers in the US (that is, only those workers who have been here long enough to qualify for a Green Card/permanent residency).

The proposal specifies that only spouses of those H1-B visa holders who have qualified the first stage in permanent residency application would be eligible to receive a work permit.

This is only a small change from what the law looks like now. In its current state, dependent spouses are eligible to get work permits after qualifying the final stage of permanent residency.

Therefore, even if the proposed change to the law were to take effect, H-4 visa holding spouses will still be prohibited from working for at least six years (duration of H1-B visa before being eligible to file for permanent residency) if not more.

Given that women are the main recipients of the H-4 visas, it still keeps them off the labour force for more than half a decade adding to the disadvantages that already exists for women and women of colour in the US labour markets.

Additionally, applying for a permanent residency for a H1-B visa-holding worker is the prerogative of the employer.

What this means is that many H-4 visa-holding spouses may never be eligible for a work permit or have an identity of their own during their stay in the US. This goes against the government’s goal of creating policies to retain the workers.

As the DHS proposal proves, it is clearly in the US government and corporate sector’s interest to retain migrant high-skilled workers.

The US seems to be moving in the right direction by proposing to reform the dependent visa laws. But with only partial effort toward change there will continue to be avoidable issues in the unforeseen future.

Pallavi Banerjee, a post-doctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University, is working on a book about dependent visas and gendered migrations.

Pallavi Banerjee