Deprived of work and education opportunities, spouses of U.S. work visa holders often find themselves descending into ill health and low self-esteem
To better understand the impact of the U.S.’ H-4 visa, the non-working visa given to the spouse of a work-authorised H-1B visa holder, The Hindu conducted a limited survey via a Facebook page that is a portal for H-4 visa holders. Along with the administrator of that page, Rashi Bhatnagar, who is herself on an H-4 visa, respondents were asked about the circumstances they found themselves in after they arrived in the U.S.
The responses not only hinted at a wide range of personal and health setbacks for female Indian H-4 visa holders but also testified to this visa’s impact on those from other nations, grown children of H-4 visa holders and, in some rare cases, male H-4 visa holders.
Take the case of Kathy, who used to be Senior Principal at a firm in the United Kingdom. After she and her children moved to the U.S. to join her husband, they had to put their oldest daughter through college with absolutely no access to financial aid because they were not permanent citizens of the U.S.
To make matters worse, when her daughter finished college she found herself, like her mother, stuck at home and unable to earn a living using the skills acquired at university. “She sits in her room all day, on her own,” Kathy worried, adding that her daughter had few friends and got very depressed.
Kathy herself fared poorly and it took a drastic toll on her health. Initially she and her daughters had private health insurance, but after she was diagnosed with a pineocytoma, or non-malignant brain tumour, she was dropped from her insurance. Apart from the compelling case that such instances make for reform of the H-4 visa restrictions, they underscore the need for the sort of health insurance reform that President Barack Obama has pushed through. As for Kathy, she and her daughter have no health insurance, no prospect of working and face a daily routine of social isolation and despondence.
Another striking case that the survey revealed was of Rahul, a male H-4 visa holder who followed his IT-professional wife to the U.S. For him, too, the stark reality of U.S. employers’ unwillingness to sponsor an H-1B struck home after many months of a frustrating job search. Cut off from friends and family and no longer the sociable, buoyant person he used to be, Rahul turned to alcohol — at a heavy cost. Caught in a downward spiral of depression, he attempted suicide several times. “I hurt myself very badly during one of these attempts and had to be hospitalised after calling 911,” he said. However, he showed resilience and tried to bounce back from that low point. He returned to India to change his field from sales and marketing and gain a greater IT focus. He even found work in a U.S. firm’s India office in the hope that the firm would apply for a work visa for him.
“Unfortunately the recession hit in 2008 and the company did not do well,” said Rahul. He had to resign himself to the prospect of staying on in India and battling the spectre of alcoholism that had arisen once again, not to mention thoughts of depression and suicide. Meanwhile, his wife and three-year-old child live out their lives in the U.S. without him.
Among most respondents to the Facebook survey, health issues arising from depression and a sense of hopelessness appeared to be common. One respondent, Joyita, said she was constantly visiting neurologists and physical therapists for treatments related to psychological turmoil “which have their roots in H-4 visa’s work restrictions”.
Even where physical symptoms were absent a sense of utter despair replaced the initial optimism that these spouses of H-1B workers had felt. Shauravi, for example, felt that she could not afford an MBA or other professional degree given the lack of funding opportunities. But the alternative, to “be at home for whole day without working and be very dependent to my husband ... has made me very weak just thinking about it”.
Another respondent, Ketaki, worried that the only degree she could afford was of no interest to her and lack of friends and complete dependence on her husband in a new environment had made her lose her self-confidence. Similarly Lavanya, who left a senior post in the Indian government, found herself struggling to keep up her self-esteem when she could not find any job, not even one that required far lower skill levels than those she possessed.
For several survey respondents their vulnerability had led to abuse within the marriage, in some cases resulting in complete familial breakdown. Priya told The Hindu that after suffering numerous beatings by her husband, she managed to file a police complaint and had him arrested. However, because as an H-4 spouse she had no access to bank accounts and other paperwork — all of which were controlled by her husband — she was unable to afford an attorney to fight the case. She was left praying for a denial of visa renewal for her husband for she had no other means to reach out to her family back in India.
A similar case was Poorvi who, despite overcoming financial hurdles and completing a U.S. academic degree, faced marital trouble, loneliness and spousal abuse that ultimately led to divorce.
The severity of personal problems faced by individuals in this position begs the question of why the spouses of H-1B, I, and a range of other visa holders have been denied the right to work, while L-1 visa holders’ spouses were granted the right some time ago,
Sheela Murthy, an expert on immigration law, told The Hindu that there had occasionally been talk in official circles about granting H-4 visa holders the right to work, but “that was before the economy tanked”. Apart from the sheer political pressure that any government would face if it tries to push through such a reform, it could also lead to some uncomfortable questions as to why the spouses of other visa holders — including the A, B, C, D, G, and F visas — could not similarly be given the right to work .
The H-4 case may be a “strong but not a winning argument”, said Ms. Murthy, noting that another fact pertinent to this case was that India ranks among the top 10 nationalities of illegal immigrants in the U.S.
On lobbying the White House and Capitol Hill for relaxing the work restrictions, she said: “I do not think we have been able to make the case clearly and strongly, with statistics and numbers, and have a very limited and strong message, to take up the drumbeat that gets both Houses of Congress on board.” There was still something missing in the strategy and articulation, she suggested.
In the end there is a complex argument to be made that must consider all of the difficult questions relating to the politics of post-recession unemployment, the plight of spouses of other visa holders, and the broader context of comprehensive immigration reform and illegal immigration.
Yet even as the weight of these unanswered questions stalls progress on H-4 visa reform, thousands of individuals in this category will continue to live with their broken dreams.