“So, what do you do?”
For Imran Ismail (some names have been changed upon request), this typical conversation-starter is one of the main reasons why he doesn’t like meeting new people, “It’s hard to tell them that I don’t do anything,” he tells me.
Ismail is not permitted to work. He holds an H-4 spouse visa.
Unlike the United Kingdom, where the spouse of an immigrant worker can work without a separate permit, the United States issues the spouses and dependent children of H-1 visa holders a somewhat restrictive H-4 visa, which does not allow the holder to work. Or to do business. Or to get a social security number. An H-4 visa holder can, however, go to school, get a driver’s license, and hold a bank account.
The visa is fairly easy to get. Ismail and his wife Reema originally came here to study on F-1 student visas. Reema got a job after graduation, but Ismail wasn’t as lucky. Finally, Ismail adjusted his status to H-4 just as his one year of post-graduate optional practical training came to an end. Today he has been in H-4 status for three years.
“At that time I didn’t think that it would take me as long as it has to find a job,” he explains. “But then there was a hiring freeze because of the dot-com burst and the Sept. 11 attacks.”
This initial optimism is a common thread among most H-4 spouses. Namita Iyer who gave up her job as a technical writer in India to join her husband on an H-4 talks about the early days. “I had always looked forward to setting up my home. I didn’t really worry too much about the visa because I expected to find a job in the Bay Area without too much difficulty.”
Then frustration sets in. “It’s very strange to wake up and not have to go anywhere,” says Ismail. He still continues to send out resumes. “On a good day, I apply to five to six jobs. The most distressing thing is that nothing really happens, I feel like I am sending resumes into a black hole.”
Without That Second Paycheck
Staying home alone can also be horribly lonely. “Your social life comes to a complete zero,” says Iyer, “I hardly knew anybody here. I missed India and all my friends terribly. I wasn’t really able to make new friends because I didn’t have too many opportunities to meet new people.” Jodi Helmer, a former career counselor who immigrated from Canada on an H-4, echoes that thought. “A job provides so many avenues for socializing, even if it’s only for a few minutes at the copy machine. Although the area of California where we were living was home to a huge percentage of expatriates, especially Canadians, it was difficult to make friends because I had few avenues to meet people aside from approaching someone at the grocery store and saying, “Do you want to be my friend?”
Ismail, being a man, faces other social pressures. “My mom owns a couple of Subway restaurants, so there is this parental pressure to come work for her—my parents are not very up-to-date in immigration law, but they think they can apply for some kind of visa for me so that I can take up my ‘masculine’ responsibilities.” He adds, “Socially also, although everyone I know has been very helpful, and never said anything about my being a man and not working, at the back of my mind there’s always this thought—that is what they think.”
And however much you gloss over it, that second income matters. I remember, for instance, how the driving school near my apartment in Chicago had two instructors. One was polite and patient, and charged $60 and hour. The other charged half as much, yelled at you for small mistakes, and yanked your foot off the accelerator for bigger ones. Guess which one the H-4 spouses went to? Yes, it was the cheaper one.
Ismail talks about his situation. “Even by conservative standards, a salary l
ooks pretty good when doubled.” He describes how they ran up credit card debt in the early optimistic years and how that has made the subsequent years more difficult. “So now, we cook at home and limit the number of times that we go out to dinner. Sometimes we cannot afford things that we want to buy.”
Psychological Warfare and Abuse
Occasionally, the H-4 spouse has bigger problems. Indu Liladhar-Hathi, a Bay Area-based immigration attorney, talks about H-4 wives who are not even aware of the legal issues involved. “Only this morning,” she says, “I talked to a lady who had been married for 4.5 years and been separated since November 2004. Her H-4 status had expired in February 2004 and she had no idea if her husband had applied for an extension.”
According to Liladhar-Hathi, this lack of awareness is one of the most critical immigration issues that women on H-4 visas face. “At this point she can ask the INS for a copy of her records,” she says. “Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, the INS is obliged to provide you with a copy of your records. Then she can ask the INS to change her status on humanitarian grounds or go to a lawyer.” But more importantly, she adds, “You are responsible for your status, so you should be aware. Use the Internet, the library, drive. But be aware before it is too late.”
Such power play, where the husband keeps the wife in the dark about legal matters, is not unusual in strained marriages. “In an abusive marriage,” says Liladhar-Hathi, “the spouse often uses the H-4 as a trump card and says things like, ‘I won’t extend your H-4 if you don’t do this or don’t do that.’ This kind of behavior is mostly directed at women, though I was recently contacted by a woman who asked me how to cancel her husband’s H-4 status. With men, the issues differ slightly. A lot of men feel stuck in relationships that they want to get out of but have to remain in because of the visa.”
Studies also show a correlation between domestic abuse and H-4 visa status. One study suggests that, compared to other South Asian women in the United States, H-4 wives are more than twice as likely to experience domestic abuse. In cases of domestic violence, Liladhar-Hathi recommends getting a divorce. “A lot of women think that because they were married in India, they cannot get divorced in California, but that’s not true. Also, if they are already going to school, they can try and switch to F-1.”
So how do spouses cope? Setting up a schedule helps. “Once I developed a scheduled routine for each day, with exercise, hobbies, and television,” says Iyer, “things started getting better.”
Ismail has established a timetable of his own as well. “Now I cook every day, pay bills, and go grocery shopping. It keeps me to a routine.” He has begun to enjoy these chores. “I enjoy grocery shopping as it gives me a chance to get out. And I found that I actually enjoy cooking, though most of all I enjoy eating.”
Volunteering or interning is another popular strategy. Iyer, for instance, found a volunteer writer position at a local start-up. She spent a good part of the day feeling useful and it lifted her spirits a great deal. However, Liladhar-Hathi adds a word of caution. “Voluntary work is still a gray area for the INS. It’s probably all right to work at a nonprofit, or as long as you are not taking away work from a United States employee. The same thing applies to internships. If you are working there hoping to get a job later the INS may regard this as ‘payment in kind,’ and may frown upon it.”
With all this, it comes as no surprise that people on H-4 visas sometimes resort to desperate and perhaps illegal measures. One H-4 spouse with an artistic streak was rumored to be selling her paintings for money at garage sales. Yet another supposedly spent her time listening to telemarketing messages on the telephone, for which she was paid a few cents per minute. And one person on a Bay Area-based mailing list offered this advice to people on H-4: “Just pay a headhunting firm to sponsor your H-1.”
So what legal options do H-4 visa-holders have? They can go back to school. Liladhar-Hathi explains, “The one thing which not many spouses are aware of is that you can study without a student visa. You can also get credit for your 3-year education in India and do a U.S. bachelor’s degree.”
That seems to be a fallback option for many H-4 spouses. Iyer is now back in school. “When the startup didn’t hire me after a year, I decided to go back to school and get a master’s degree in environmental engineering. I hope to graduate this December and find a job.”
“Another resource,” suggests Liladhar-Hathi, “is strong lobbying efforts to change the law, as in the case of L-2 visas.” Spouses of L-1 (intra-company transfer) visa holders are eligible to get an L-2 visa. L-2 spouses were not allowed to work until 2002, when the law was changed. Liladhar-Hathi says, “You can contact local congressional representatives and bring H-4 issues to their attention. But other than that, you can’t really do much.”As Ismail says, “Things have reached a point when I am thinking of joining the family business. I am talking to an immigration lawyer about that. I am also thinking of migrating to Australia, or the U.K., or Canada.”
Some have made the best of a restrictive situation by taking time off from their careers to go to school or raise children. For Sarada Sinha, who has a master’s degree in chemistry, the move to the United States came at an opportune time, when her children Aradhana and Kapil were only 4 and 1, and she wanted to spend time with them anyway. Her husband’s employer in Salinas, Calif., is sponsoring their green card application.
Now, five years later, both children go to school and Sinha would like to get a job when her work permit arrives. “Going to work would make me feel more independent, both socially and financially.” She hasn’t decided what career she would like to pursue, though.
The forced career break that the H-4 imposes can be turned into an opportunity to re-evaluate the options. Padma Shandas, counselor and author of the book Spices in the Melting Pot says, “First of all, I would say, evaluate your skills and interests. Sometimes, in India, a woman might have gone through school and got degrees without understanding her skills and interests. So it would help if she sits down and makes a list of all the subjects of her interest and the kinds of jobs she could excel in if she tried. She shouldn’t worry if her education was in something quite different.”
Helmer has managed to do just that. “I went back to work in 2002 and I love my job!” she says. “I had been writing for free for websites and small press publications and developed a network of contacts that made it relatively easy to launch a freelance writing career. It is a career I never would have explored if I hadn’t been on the H-4.”
For most H-4 spouses, the H-4 has only strengthened their relationship. As Iyer says of her husband, “We got really close as we had only each other. He was always my best friend, and did everything he could to fill the sudden loneliness in my life.” Helmer seconds that view, “Ultimately, we treated our time in California as an extended honeymoon; we traveled almost every weekend, tried out new restaurants, went to the theater, saw sporting events … it was a wonderful adventure.”
Consider, on the other hand, the case of green-card holders who cannot bring their spouses to the United States for five to six years. Liladhar-Hathi cites this as a common complaint. “Even when I tell dissatisfied green-card holders that the H-4 is a very restrictive visa, their response is always, ‘Even so, we would still like to have our loved ones with us.’ So there are a lot of anomalies in immigration law.”
In the end, all immigration involves trade-offs, and the H-4 is just one of them. When I ask Ismail, ‘Do you have regrets?’ he voices a sentiment common among other H-4 holders: “No. Had I not switched, I would be in Pakistan today.”
Sandhya Char writes from San Francisco.
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