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Unable to Work, Indian Immigrant Women Feel Trapped by H4 Visas



According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program of 2008 to 2012, around 134,656 Indian immigrants lived and worked in Queens, which is the most the immigrant-based borough in New York. Photo by Doug Turetsky/Flickr

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Program of 2008 to 2012, around 134,656 Indian immigrants lived and worked in Queens, which is the most the immigrant-based borough in New York. Photo by Doug Turetsky/FlickrShuchi 

Shuchi Lange’s life changed in December 2007, when she decided to give up her life in India, get married and move to Queens with her husband for his IT job. But Lange didn’t realize that being dependent on her husband’s visa came with a price.

Her husband came to the U.S. on an H1B visa, which is granted to “highly skilled” workers. But she was given only an H4 visa, which makes her ineligible to work, drive or obtain a Social Security number in the United States. Instead, she’s unemployed and sitting at home.

Many Indian expats are in Lange’s situation.

According to the State Department’s website, 96,753 people were on H4 visas in 2013, which are usually given to the spouses of workers who are on H1B visas. Out of this number, 76 per cent were South Asian immigrants.

“They think we’re useless,” said Rashi Bhatnagar, an H4 visa holder for 6 years living in Milwaukee.

Despite her ineligibility to work, Bhatnagar would apply for jobs anyway, hoping an employee would agree to sponsor her. But employers would often “back out” from an interview because they were unwilling to do so, she said.

Lange, who has an MBA and an HR certification, recalled the time when she used to apply for over 30 human resource vacancies per day during her first six months here.

Often ending up disappointed one interview after the other, she somehow hoped that might change someday, and that a company would eventually agree to sponsor her. When it didn’t happen, she was depressed.

“Sometimes it’s OK to hear a no, but if you hear it for a long period of time, you start questioning yourself. Am I doing something wrong? Am I lacking something? Is that the reason people are telling me no?” she said.

Like many other immigrants, Lange had no other options but to wait for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), a legal document that arrives before a green card is processed. But that paper, initiated through a spouse’s job, can take up to 10 years to arrive for Indian immigrants.

That depression takes its toll on other women in many different ways.

“There were so many days where I wanted to give up this life,” said an immigrant who lived in Queens for two years ago before moving to Park Avenue, “days where I didn’t even want to be with my husband.” She requested anonymity over fear of backlash from the nonimmigrant community. She said she had heard comments like “You chose this life, and now you think you have the right to complain?”

For Meghna Damani, a former holder of an H4 visa and a green card holder since 2010, her feeling “helpless and dependent” on someone else’s money led to a six-month separation from her husband.

“All my friends here were working,” said Damani. “We’d meet on the weekend, and on Mondays I’d be the only one home. This went on for three, four years and started becoming increasingly depressed until it took a toll on my marriage,” she said.

Damani holds a master’s degree in marketing from Mumbai. She worked as a senior executive at the marketing firm JWT and was also a model.

But Damani, who now lives in New Jersey, decided to take advantage of her free time and enroll herself into film school at the New School 10 years ago. She decided to make a documentary about the H4 visa, called “Hearts Suspended.” Now, she’s the owner of Flying Pig Baby Films, a production company that specializes in newborn photography and video.

For her part, Bhatnagar, frustrated with the work authorization wait, created a Facebook group and blog in 2009, “H4 visa, a curse,” in a bid to raise awareness about the issue.

Since then, she has been in regular contact with the White House and lawmakers, pushing hard to speed up the EAD process for herself and many other women like her.

In 2011, she and 6,006 H4 visa holders signed an online petition posted on the White House’s website, calling for allowing H4 visa holders to work.

The movement is still going strong. Last May, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a rule to allow some H4 visa holders to work in the U.S. Over 12,000 people publicly responded in the form of comments.

Two months ago, in a teleconference with a group of immigrant women, the U.S. director of Citizenship and Immigration, Léon Rodriguez, said he heard their concerns, according to Bhatnagar. But she said he did not specify when those cases would be reviewed, and matters have been delayed since President Obama postponed a decision to remake federal immigration policies until after the midterm elections in November.

According to several media reports, around 97,000 women who are spouses of H1B holders would apply for permission to work the first year after any change is approved.

Though that’s still a while in the future, for women like Bhatnagar, it would be faster than what happens now.

“It takes 10 to 15 years to get a green card, and if I do get one, I’ll be 40 or 45,” said Bhatnagar. “Who will hire me then when I’m old and with a big work gap?”


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