The H4 visa conundrum

One woman decided to champion the cause of dependent spouses

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By Zenobia Khaleel

"Zenobia Khaleel"SAN FRANCISCO: In my last blog, I discussed the predicaments of various immigrants, who are caught at the crossroads of Immigration reform. Today, I’m focusing on a particular group of immigrants who are often overlooked by lawmakers,  insignificant for lobbyists and seldom mentioned in media discourse; the H4 visa holders – the dependents of H1 visas.

There are around 100,000 to 150,000 H4 spouses (mostly women and Asian) in the US  presently. They have a legal status, they pay taxes, they contribute to social security, but they are involuntarily home bound, as their visa status denies a work permit.

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Sana from California, found out the hard way, how restrictive the H4 visa status can be.

“I was studying for final year BE when I got placed in TCS (Tata Consultancy Service),” she says. “I worked for six months till I got married and then flew here on H4 visa to join my husband who’s a H1B holder.”

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Sana uploaded her resume in job hunting websites, pooling in her friends and contacts on her job hunt. The callbacks she received commended her qualification, but the positive responses came to a dead end when her visa status was mentioned.

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“It shattered my dreams initially,” recalls Sana who misses the contentment of bringing home a paycheck. She is riled that qualified techies like her are being disregarded, while the tech sector pushes to increase the inflow of high skilled workers from foreign countries.

A year later, Sana has reconciled herself and the job hunt has lost its steam. She now indulges in traveling and other hobbies.

Stringent immigration laws of 2011 have complicated the situation further for immigrants on H4. Even if an employer consents to sponsor the H1 visa, with today’s high demand and limited availabilities, they will be entitled to the visa only by Oct 2014.

After her wedding, Thanafez moved to the U.S from Aberdeen, with a newly minted Ph. D. in microbiology, raring to go.

“My world revolved around my research and I was passionate about pursuing it after moving to US,”’ says Thanafez.

She connected with professors from various universities for postdoctoral research, who showed a lot of interest in her cutting edge research work, but turned her down due to lack of funding.

“When I apply for jobs in research institutes, the checkbox showing my visa ineligibility in the application forms works against my favor,” she says. “It is unfair that skilled professionals are stuck at home due to an immigration rule denying their right to work. I hope that the current proposal to allow H4 spouses to apply for work permit comes into effect soon!”

It’s a statement echoed by the majority of the H4 spouses who followed the pursuit of their partner’s dreams, leaving their careers behind.

Sana and Thanafez are prepared to wait for the tide to turn, but Rashi Bhatnagar has decided to champion the cause instead.

"Rashi Bhatnagar "
Rashi Bhatnagar

Rashi, who holds a Master’s degree in Mass Communication and Journalism, was a lifestyle journalist in India. She arrived in US on a dependent visa in 2009.  When the career restrictions enforced by her visa status started taking a toll on her physical and emotional well-being, she created a support group for H4 visa holders with these objectives in mind: gather H4 visa holders not only from India but from other countries as well who would be a voice for this cause; present the concerns of the H4 dependents to Senators and lawmakers; bring media attention to the issue.

In 2011, Rashi created the forum H4 visa-a curse, with 20 members. Its Facebook page is now more than 2,000 strong and growing. The forum also had few H4 visa related radio shows hosted by immigration attorney Shah Peerally who is a very supportive member of the group.

Rashi receives a lot of messages from the H4 visa holders all over the US, on a daily basis. She indicates some of the major dilemma that H4 dependents face:

Currently, an H4 visa holder, has to wait for anywhere between 6-18 years (while the primary H1 and green card is under process) to be eligible for an EAD (work permit) or run/own business venture. That is a huge chunk of productive career years ripped right out.

A student on an H4 visa is not eligible for scholarships or student loans. She is not allowed to take up part-time work to support her study expenses.

“It is demotivating and it lowers our self-esteem,” says Rashi.

Rashi has come also across a few instances of domestic abuse, when women reach out to her, through her forum, for support and counsel. While domestic abuse is not a visa centric concern, its gravity is magnified in H1-B households since visa restrictions and financial dependency limits an H4 abuse victim from getting a divorce, alimony, or custody of children. Immigration laws render H4 spouses defenseless at the whims of their husbands, who have the power to change her status to an undocumented immigrant.

The Department of Homeland Security’s recent proposal to provide employment authorization to H4 visa holders, is a welcome break for Rashi and the other forum members; they have their fingers crossed for the Executive Order. The forum argues that extending the limit of H1 visas will create more uncertain workers and frustrated H4 spouses. Dipping into the qualified H4 talent, dormant in the country is a more feasible option which also cuts off the vicious cycle.

To contact the author, e-mail: zenobiakhaleel@americanbazaaronline.com

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