- Indian government must protect the interest of the H- 4 visa holders who face forced deportation. The Indian embassy should collaborate with the local Indian American agencies to give a voice to these cases.
In early December 2022, I got a message from Priya* in Hyderabad. “I read your story on the saga of H-4 visa holders on americankahani.com and could relate to it. I have been suffering from a horrible case of domestic abuse and deportation.” She wanted to tell her story so that other innocent people would not make the wrong choice. If not for the stringent visa policies that made her husband Prem* control her life, Priya would not have lost self-confidence and found her life worthless.
The H-4 dependent visa holders are not allowed to have a social security number or to work in the country. They cannot apply for a driver’s license without their spouse’s approval. The visa has been dubbed the “depression visa” and the “prisoner visa” since women, who are often highly qualified and have work experience, become frustrated in the traditional housewife role that U.S. immigration policy forces on them. Ironically, these educated professional women find the worst form of patriarchy which is reinforced as dependents on their H-1B visa-holder spouses.
In August 2020, during the pandemic, Priya, a 33-year-old ambitious and financially successful entrepreneur from Hyderabad, was surfing online to find a life partner. She lived with her parents, worked as a wedding planner, and ran her own company designing flowers and party decor. In April 2020, her industrialist father was admitted to the hospital’s ICU in Hyderabad for a weak heart condition. Priya’s marriage was his immediate worry. She wanted to see him happy.
Priya met Prem online and his credentials looked very promising. His family is local. Prem went to the U.S. in 2008 for his master’s in Engineering and had worked in the tech industry for more than a decade. He worked for the Electronics content (ETC) company based in Dallas. Texas. In Feb 2020, he came home to Hyderabad and stayed on because of the pandemic.
Priya had already visited the United States a few times and wanted to settle there. Her younger brother works and lives in Silicon Valley. However, she wanted to avoid going to the U.S. on an H-4 visa as she was aware of its constraints. Even though President Obama had introduced H-4 EAD (eligibility to work in the U.S.) for H-4 spouses in 2015, they could still work only with spousal approval. Prem had told her that his H-1B status would soon change as he was getting a green card. He had shown the supporting papers for 1- 197 (U.S. Citizen Identification Card) to prove his case. He assured Priya that he would help her in her business and career building. She was excited to have new opportunities in the U.S.
Prem wanted a quick wedding against the family’s wish. In November 2020, the wedding took place hastily, hardly two months after they met in person. Her brother from the United States could not come to the wedding. Many relatives could not join because of the pandemic.
Priya had closed her business and was all set to move to America. Her H-4 visa was pending. So, she came with Prem on a tourist visa. After arriving in Dallas, Priya realized Prem was a changed person. He had no friends and never invited anyone to the house. He did not show any affection or love and made her feel invisible. They hardly had any physical relationship like a husband and wife. She had to sleep on the living room couch for months.
Priya realized Prem was not interested in sponsoring her H-4 EAD to work in the United States. He did not even get her a driver’s license. As per the immigration rules, without the husband’s permission, a driver’s license is not allowed for H-4. Priya was confined to the apartment as she could not go anywhere. Prem used visa conditionalities to keep her dependent.
Her visitor visa expired on April 24, 2021, and she went to India to get her H-4 visa. When she returned in June, Prem was aloof. He had torn the wedding pictures. He kept the bedroom locked. She was forced to sleep on the couch. She felt rejected, utterly lonely, and sad. On top of it, he never gave her any money for her expenses. She had to constantly depend on her father to send money for her food and personal expenses.
In the Summer of 2021, she came across two American women at a local bar that Prem frequented. They were very sympathetic and offered lunch with her the following week. Prem put his foot down. He cautioned her not to meet these two women and discuss their personal life. He accused her of taking off and meeting people and spat on her face. They had some physical brush, and he called his family and cousins in India, complaining about her. Priya says he was building up a case against her and giving the impression to his family and friends in India that she was physically abusive. She was losing her extended family and was afraid of talking to anyone in India.
Deportation to India
Priya was strapped for money. She was desperate to work. In January 2022, a Punjabi businessman wanted to open an event hall and make her a business partner. Prem would not allow her. Instead, he put up a big fight, and she had to say no. A month later, they fought again. He forcefully entered the locked room and the closet where Priya was hiding and challenged her. In the fight, he twisted her arm. Priya slammed the door, which could have hit him. He called the cops on her, falsely accusing her of physically assaulting him. Cops did not see any trace of any physical violence. Seeing Priya so disturbed and stressed, the officers told her to calm down and asked the husband to separate himself. After the officer leaves, Prem calls her on the telephone, “you have to go back to India immediately. Or else the Police will arrest you.” She had it on the recording. When she told her brother, he said he was building a case against her.
Priya had a few Indian friends from the community to support her. Prem told her that the friends would be arrested too. Mentally disturbed, she went to the local Hindu temple in Frisco, Dallas, and collapsed there. Some people came to her rescue and sent her home. She packed her bags and moved in with some local friends before leaving for India. On February 21, 2022, she came back to Hyderabad.
Priya had contacted a South Asian NGO for abused women in Richardson, Dallas. She was told her case would be taken up. Priya’s messages to the NGO were desperate. She wanted help because of Prem’s threats. Priya says it has been ten months, but she has had no support from the NGO.
In Hyderabad, the lawyers told her she should make a case of physical abuse. Still, it is an expensive and shameful affair. Priya realizes that taking the help of the law is a long and unrealistic affair that takes years. She sent the divorce papers to Prem for his consent but never heard back from him. So even if Priya, the abused spouse, is deported, she is technically married to her U.S.-based husband. As an H-4 visa holder, she cannot return to the U.S., without Prem’s consent.
The Pain Continues
Priya came back to her parent’s home broken from the inside. She is scared, too afraid to touch or let anyone, even her mother, touch her. She feels ashamed and blames herself for this failure. “The instant my clients find out that I am separated, who will give me the wedding planning job”? Separation makes a dent in her character and credibility in society. “It has affected my career immensely.” Priya feels fortunate that she has her parent’s support. But she has lost her ability to earn money, self-worth, and health in this marriage.
Priya’s case is one of many where the woman stands outside the legal framework because of her visa. Abused spouses under H-4 visas are at the mercy of their spouses. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) only applies to those married to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
Unless there are a visible signs of domestic violence, the law does not protect the victims. There is a provision to obtain work permit (EAD) as an abused spouse but no provision to maintain legal status unless the victim has a different visa, such as a student visa. The H-4 visa holder is left at the mercy of the system and cannot legally remain in the U.S. The emotionally abused cannot continue a legal stay in the U.S.
When a H -1B holder abandons an H-4 visa holder, the latter faces deportation. Thus it leads to another emotional trauma as the H-4 visa holder cannot sustain a legal status in the U.S. without the spouse’s approval.
Indian government must protect the interest of the H-4 visa holders who face forced deportation. The Indian embassy should collaborate with the local Indian American agencies to give a voice to these cases. The law related to violence against women (VAWA) must be changed to protect the H-4 visa holder’s interest on humanitarian grounds. Many share the same fate as Priya and are deported to India and waiting for justice.
*The name is changed to protect privacy.
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, the 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 fieldwork 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.