The truth about H-4.
The current law allows 65000 aliens to come into the US with H-1B visas as temporary workers in a specialized occupation every year. Most of them bring their spouses on dependent H-4 visas. The H-4 visa has three extremely significant conditions attached to it: it is completely dependent on the marital relationship between the principal H-1B holder and the dependent spouse. Secondly, it is entirely dependent on the employment relationship between the principal H-1B worker and his/her employer. If the principal H-1B is cancelled, the corresponding H-4 is automatically voided. The third condition is that the H-4 visa does not allow its carrier to work legally in the US. All of the above create a situation that can be exploited by abusive partners with frightening ease. If trapped in an abusive marriage, women who are dependent spouses of H-1B workers have very few resources available to them. Without a social security number and with a visa that is entirely derivative of the status of the principal H-1B holder, the H-4 visa holders belong to an invisible population. For women in nurturing relationships it often translates to lack of career opportunities and an unequal relationship where they are financially dependent upon their husbands.
The notion harbored by many South Asians--even among educated and urban communities--that a woman suffering marital abuse will find refuge, justice and opportunity in the US is therefore not entirely true for H-4 visa holders. Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), victims of domestic violence who are married to legal permanent residents or citizens of the US can submit a self-petition for their legal residency in the US. However, there is no such provision offered for victims of violence who have temporary dependent visas such as the H-4 visa, since their husbands are temporary workers and have no permanent residency in this country. In 2002 when President George Bush signed a bill, which would allow dependent spouses of L and E visa holders to get work authorization, no such provision was granted to H-4 visa holders.
The big question that comes to mind then is, what happens to such women? They usually have three choices: they may decide to end the abusive relationships and return to their home countries, where often no justice can be served against the abusive partners. Most women do not wish to return to their home countries because in the South Asian context there persists immense social pressure and prejudice against women who choose to end their marriages. The second choice is just as dismal--if they stay on in the US and decide to leave their abusive partners, they have no more legal status than that of an undocumented alien. The third option is even more deplorable: they may endure the abusive relationship despite needing and wanting relief, because the other two options do not offer them justice. I work with many such women, as an advocate, and it breaks my heart and enrages my conscience every day.
As an advocate, empowerment of women is an integral part of my work. I find it disturbing when the law of a free country stops a woman from working and attaining economic independence, even if she wants to. The law fails that woman every single hour and robs her of her self-reliance. Economic independence was a concept drummed into my veins since childhood and it still flows in them today. So what about all those other women who are not victims of violence, but still suffer from the perils of the H-4 visa status? if a woman is not battered or abused, does that diminish the importance of economic independence for her? This makes me wonder about the many levels of violence perpetrated against women, often in carefully subtle tones. A visa restriction that stops a woman from working, earning and being economically independent, in my eyes, is one of those subtle violations of our rights. How can we try to empower a woman while the law stops her from being financially independent?
It is important that we feel enraged, that we seek justice and ask the questions no one wants to answer, because that is what gives birth to advocacy and paves the way for positive change. In 2004, Shivali Shah, an attorney and founder of Kiran: Domestic Violence and Crisis Service for South Asians in North Carolina, began a community survey of H-4 visa holders. Kiran, like Manavi and other South Asian women's organizations, had too many battered H-4 clients. Shivali surveyed hundred H-4 women and ten South Asian women's organizations over the last two years to raise awareness in the community and to lobby legislators to change policies. Concerned that the needs of H-4 visa holders would be again overlooked in the 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), Shivali and the H Visa Survey (www.hvisasurvey.org) launched lobbying efforts and a media campaign to educate policy makers and other social justice movements about the plight of battered H-4 women. Her work was covered by the BBC, the Washington Post, and India Abroad, among others. "It was important for law makers and other key stake holders to view dependent immigrant spouses, including H-4 visa holders, as a social and political group," Shivali says of the purpose behind the awareness campaign. "The media campaign helped create an identity for these women not only to outsiders, but among themselves as well."
A report was sent to Congressmen and support was rallied among key organizations to push for the inclusion of a provision for H-4 visa holders in VAWA 2005. Manavi contributed data and testimonials to this report. These efforts helped bring a new provision in the 2005 version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which will assist battered immigrant women with temporary dependent visas to get work authorization. Under the new provision of VAWA 2005, victims of violence who have derivative visas in A, E, G or H categories can get work authorization if they can prove that violence had been perpetrated against them.
Network of Advocates for Dependent Immigrant Spouses of America (NADISA) was created in 2005, as another result of the lobbying and media campaign. NADISA brought together immigrant and women's advocates, attorneys, and academics to continue working towards increased rights for dependent spouses of temporary visa holders.
VAWA 2005 is most definitely a step towards success, but we have not won the battle yet. The regulations for this provision are yet to be in place and we still have thousands of dependent spouses who may not be battered, but deserve the right to work if they want to. The efforts made by members of NADISA are not limited to victims of violence, and much remains to be done for the remaining immigrant dependent women in the US. Shivali stated that "It may seem counter intuitive to us, but giving work authorization to H-4 visa holders, battered or not, is a very unpopular idea to many Americans." NADISA is looking for more volunteers to participate in spreading awareness and lobbying for changes, which will enable dependent spouses to have more rights and visibility in this country. To learn more about NADISA and the H Visa Survey, please visit their website: http:// www.hvisasurvey.org. There may not be quick resolutions or stunning victories, but our efforts will always yield progress and we owe that to ourselves and to those who come after us.
We would like to thank Shivali Shah for her valuable input towards this piece.