- Without work authorization, financial independence and support network, these Indian and South Asian spouses of H1-B visa workers suffer abuse for fear of deportation, losing custody of children and social stigma.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is meant to remind ourselves of the gravity of this crime and to raise our voice against it. One important issue which remains neglected is the plight of a particular group of victims — spouses on H-4 visa of the high skilled H-1 B visa holders from India who form the largest group of foreign workers living in the U.S.
The technology boom of the 1990s brought the distinctive category of high skilled workers on non-immigrant H1-B visas and their spouses on dependent visas (H-4). The U.S. immigration agency reports that as of September 2019, there were an estimated 583,420 H-1B visa holders in the United States, 70% of them are Indian nationals. Cato Institute estimates that out of about 500,000 spouses who are in the U.S. on H-4, 87% of them are Indians.
A majority of the H-4 spouses are highly educated professionals in India. David J Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Centre for Global Liberty and Prosperity, says that nearly 90% of H-4 visa holders are highly paid women from India with professional degrees. They are dubbed as “engineer brides” whose education credentials make them desirable in the marriage market in India. They come to the U.S. on the H-4 family reunification visa to join their H1-B spouses. These visa holders are not legally allowed to work and become totally dependent on their husbands. They are without a social security number, and cannot have a separate bank account, or even a driver’s license without their spouse’s consent. In May 2015, the USCIS extended EAD to a certain section of H-4 dependents whose spouses’ green card applications are in an advanced stage of processing which still leaves a majority of H- 4 visa holders stranded.
With the creation of the H-4, an unintended consequence has been the rise of abuse of dependents—mostly women. The H- 4visa has been dubbed the “depression visa” and the “prisoner visa,” since these women, who are often highly qualified and have work experience, become frustrated and depressed in the traditional housewife role that U.S. immigration policy forces on them. They are doubly disadvantaged without a legal standing in the society. As a result, many of them suffer from physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and financial abuse in the hands of their partners.
In the United States, it has been reported that 85% of all violent crime experienced by women are cases of intimate partner violence, compared to 3% of violent crimes experienced by men.
H-4 visa related abuse may not be gender specific. Men who are dependent on their spouse’s visas are also abused. It has been observed that the same kind of power and control are used to manipulate the dependent relationships. But 93% of the H-4 visa holders are women, and they are abused at a significantly higher rate compared to men. Several South Asian advocacy organizations report that 70% to 80% of cases come from women who have non-immigrant visa status. Marta Prada Pelaez, at the Family Violence Prevention Services, Texas, observes that “a victim who comes to their shelter is on the average a 36-year-old woman with children in the age range of eight, four and a baby in diapers.” She defines domestic violence as “coercive control — the many ways an abuser might dominate and control every aspect of a victim’s life without ever putting a hand on her.”
The U.S. visa policy shapes family structures and familial relationships for high tech workers by reinforcing a patriarchal family form with the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the homemaker. Sanjoy Chakravorty and his colleagues in their work, “The Other One Percent” observe that “instead of escaping patriarchy by leaving (India), they find it reinforced (in the U.S.), since they are completely dependent on their husbands.” America has benefitted from these high-tech workers at the cost of the wellbeing of these women. Keeping in view the marginal status of these women, Divya Ravindranath observes that “H-4 visa affects women’s confidence and idea of self-worth, constrains them financially, disables them in social settings, and provides no opportunities to build economic or human capital and skill sets.”
Amy Bhatt in her work “High-tech housewives” narrates the stigma, isolation and loneliness experienced by H- 4 visa holders which breeds marital tension. H- 4 visa promotes a terrible sense of inequity, disenfranchising these women of work; depriving them of any educational and health benefits.
H-4 Visa Holders and Domestic Violence Laws
U.S. immigration policy plays a critical role in the perpetuation of domestic violence among the H-4 visa holders. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994 introduced important legal provisions benefiting abused immigrants whose spouses are permanent residents as well as citizens. It applies not only to the abused spouses, both men and women, but also to their parents and adult children. It created a process by which the non- immigrant women could self-petition for immigrant status and seek protection from their abuser and from deportation. Sadly, H-4 visa holders do not benefit from it. The restrictions of the H-4 can lead to even more serious legal problems for some women, particularly when they report domestic violence. If they leave their husbands, they lose their visa status and are subjected to deportation.
The Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 2000 (VAWA 2000) created a “U” visa which is meant for noncitizen victims of violent crime. When H-4 visa holders experience domestic violence, they could convert to a “U” visa which provides lawful status to non-citizen victims of crime who have assisted, are assisting, or are willing to assist the authorities in investigating or prosecuting crimes that were committed against them. There is, however, a catch: the victim is required to have a certification from a law enforcement agency about her moral character, along with the proof of substantial physical or mental abuse by the spouse. She has to assist the police in pursuing the perpetrator’s crime. Since the abuser faces prosecution, most often, they threaten their victims or play tricks in an attempt to get her out of any legal entanglement. This process is arduous and very few women take this route. Lack of financial independence, and an absence of a familial support system make it harder for these women to pursue any legal help.
Sushma at Chetna, a Texas-based advocacy organization victims of domestic violence in Dallas, narrates the arduous process of getting the legal help for Rashmi*, a 30-year-old H-4 visa holder, who came to their organization with her eight-year-old daughter. One night, her abusive husband broke Rashmi’s arm, and she called the police. He accused her that she wasn’t a good mother. She went to court and was lucky to have an empathetic judge who happened to be a female. In a male-dominated legal system, especially in states such as Texas, alimony isn’t offered to the spouse unless under a special circumstance. At the final hearing, the judge granted her financial support from her husband, but he vanished without a forwarding address. Rashmi could not pay rent nor had any other financial options. The local police or the court would not be of any assistance to her to issue a certificate proving her abuse in order to get her “U” visa. Sushma took her to the state’s Congress member to write a support letter to USCIS on her behalf. The letter would state that she had suffered abuse by her partner in an effort to grant her an H-4 EAD and ultimately her “U” visa. Sushma recalled, “He just talked but did not write the letter.” As a last resort, she went to the police and the courthouse to petition for a “U” visa. “Nobody wants to do anything. Only talk”. Chetna provided her legal and financial support for a short period. Unfortunately, even with the community support, she did not acquire the visa and ultimately was deported to India.
Even with a few legal provisions available for these women, it is difficult for them to avail legal relief.
Why Do Women Stay in Abusive Relationships?
Financial dependence has been found to be the main reason. Without being legally allowed to work, women are forced to stay in abusive relationships and are not able protect themselves from domestic violence. According to a recent study, one out of six South Asian women residing in the United States experience intimate partner violence.
Snigdha Ghosal, an immigration attorney from Austin, Texas, has worked pro bono with several H-4 visa holders who have come to her for help. She says that the spouse uses all the control and power to keep the other party subjugated. The abused cannot even renew her H- 4 visa without the spousal support. So, she is forced to reconcile to her abusive relationship and make her marriage work.
Snigdha tells the story of Dina* who endured an abusive relationship for the last 20 years since she arrived in this country on H-4 visa. Even with a degree from Texas State University, she was not allowed to apply for H-4 EAD (Employment Authorization Document). The USCIS requires H1-B visa holder’s I-140 approval letter in order to issue an H4 EAD to the spouse. Dina’s husband did not cooperate, because he did not want her to become financially independent.
Sushma Malhotra, a board member of Chetna, says that “H-4 visa holders and their finances are totally controlled by the abusers”. Maria Arshaad of Narika reports that “there have been many cases where women were working at good technology companies, but the money goes into their spouses’ account and they are not even allowed to spend the money without his permission.” Smita Panda from Milton, Georgia, agrees that “even if the girl works an equally respectable job, and gets a salary even more than the man, at the end of the day, it goes to a joint account, and man controls and owns it. He can buy any gadgets and gizmos, but his wife has to plead and get approval even to buy lipstick. Man can build a home for his parents, but the woman needs permission to buy a sleeper for her parents.”
Smita is a professional and laments that she lived in an abusive relationship for 21 years. Even though she had a lucrative job at a leading technology company, she did not know where her paycheck went after she handed it to her husband. She was suffering from physical and emotional abuse in the hands of her husband. When asked what made her stay in this toxic relationship for so many years, she says that “no financial freedom, no family support, and the local Indian community who judges and gossips” are responsible.
Indian culture is male dominated and when Indian men and women come to the U.S. as H-4 visa holders they do not leave their culture behind. Their interaction with one another continues to be guided by the cultural norms they grew up with. Cultural upbringing plays a very important role that leads to a sense of shame of telling friends and loved ones that they are abused. Frequently the Indian community asks the woman to compromise to save her marriage. Absence of family in the United States and lack of community support put these women in a vulnerable position.
Smita says “we have been taught that ‘Pati Parameswara” (husband is the god). I stayed in this marriage for the first ten years, and was afraid that if I divorce, no one will marry my sisters. As I waited, I became a mother of two and probably could have breathed my last in this abusive relationship had it not been my doctor who traced a disease due to him.”
Sushma at Chetna says that in many reported cases of domestic violence, the root cause is dowry. The woman is devalued in spite of her education and professional accomplishment. The family in India keeps asking for money. “A phone call from parents in India and they would start fighting.” Years of abuse makes the abused lose her self-confidence and she is under the false belief that she cannot do anything independently as their partners take charge of finances.
Fear of losing their children plays a very important role in why the abused would not follow up with the police. Keeping in view their dependent status, many of these women reconcile to an abusive relationship. Meeta at Maitri organization in California reports that “for a lot of women, unfortunately, their abusers’ home is the safest place to be.”
Sushma, says that the agency receives numerous cases of abused H-4 visa holders. Many of them have infants and children born in this country. If she raises her voice against the abuser, he threatens her to have a divorce forcing her to go back to India. It is a double bind, “they cannot leave the child or even stay with the child.”
Protecting the children and covering up her own abuse without reporting it to the police also has its adverse consequences. The wife often endures the abuse with the fear that if she calls the police, her child will end up in foster care.
Loss of Self-Confidence
Domestic abuse chips away at the self-confidence and sense of identity of the abused. Victim blaming is very common in the Indian American community. Smita from Milton, Georgia says that she has paid a heavy price for divorcing her husband. She has lost friends and is hardly invited to any community event.
A safe home for the battered people in Huntsville, Tennessee, reports that Lakshmi*, a 32-year-old abused mother, came to their shelter with her four-year-old daughter. She was very nervous and was always worried about her reputation for being in a women’s shelter. Sadly, she had lost her self-confidence and her mother from Bihar would often call and ridicule her for raising her daughter in a shelter. Lakshmi had an emotional breakdown. On the final court date, the judge granted partial custody to the father. During visitations, she realized that her daughter was neglected in the hands of her father and decided to return to the abusive relationship.
There are several instances, where spouses manipulate to intervene in a dependent’s green card process. Sushma from Chetna narrates this case study. Varsha* was in her late 30s when she came asking for help from the Chetna organization. With two young children, she was teaching in a local college. She reported that when the whole family got the green card, she was the only one who didn’t. Chetna contacted USCIS, but received no response. In the meantime, the husband had filed for divorce and kept custody of both the boys. She was deported back to India without her children.
Domestic abuse destabilizes family life. When the woman is forced out of the family, children are left to suffer. Since women are an irreplaceable source of parenting as well as emotional and cultural support for their households, domestic violence promotes economic, social, and psychological instability for the children. Also, in many instances she is branded as the bad woman which creates a false imagery in the minds of the children. Meeta Bhaduri, a volunteer at Maitri, in the bay area observes that “the home is supposed to be the safest place for anybody. And if that itself is threatened, how can one function as a human being in the outside world?”
Abusers commonly convince the dependent women that they have no rights (or that they are not entitled to any rights in this country), or that they have the power to cancel their visa status at any time. Some threaten to withdraw the petitions already filed on the women’s behalf, or to tell ICE officials that the women married for the sole purpose of legal residency. Most of the women reported enduring abuse for long periods of time because of their desire to remain with their children, and in the hope that their husbands would change their immigration status to legal.
Impact of Covid-19
The Coronavirus has further complicated the issues of domestic violence. Many shelters reported a sharp drop in calls for help as people are stuck with abusers at home.
During the pandemic, many H-4 EAD job holders have lost their jobs because of long delays in their visa renewal. Nusarat Ameen at Daya in Texas reports that “we have clients reaching out to us in this condition when they cannot leave the relationship due to pandemic and the husbands are threatening with divorce and deportation”.
The United States immigration policy forces the H-4 women to become passive victims. They are left with very little choice while suffering from domestic violence. Many of them have made compromises for the wellbeing of their family over their own security, and merely hope that their situation will be better eventually.
Women’s Organizations like Maitri, Daya, Narika, Asha Kiran, Saheli, Awaaz, Chetna, among others have been making concerted efforts to help women/ survivors go from being distressed, helpless beings to find a way out of the abusive marriage.
Domestic violence among H-4 visa holders must be acknowledged by the Indian diaspora. It is high time to believe in these survivors, vote for political candidates who prioritize these women’s safety and wellbeing and who will fund community programs for those in need. We must give our time and donate money to community organizations that are helping these victims gain safety and freedom.
(* Names of victims have been changed to protect their identity)
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for field work in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.