An Immigrant Wife’s Place? In the Home, According to Visa Policy

American Visa (XL)Do most of us still live in a 1950 nuclear family where dad goes off to work and mom stays home to take care of the family? Not in real life. But that lifestyle is enshrined in the United States’ dependent visa policies. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Leave it to Beaver way of life is the only way skilled workers’ migrant families ought to live.

It all begins with one simple fact. There is a shortage of high-tech workers in the United States. We don’t produce enough computer engineers, analysts, programmers, engineers, and doctors, to meet the country’s needs. The United States tries to solve this problem by allowing U.S. businesses to hire high-tech workers from other countries by granting H1-B non-immigrant visas to individuals from other countries seeking temporary work in  “specialty occupations.”

These visas allow a U.S. company to employ a foreign individual for up to six years with the possibility of permanent residency. To further entice migrant high-skilled workers to leave their homeland and come to the U.S., they offer H4 dependent visas to their spouses and children. In 2010, from India alone, 138,431 high-skilled Indian immigrants and the 55,335 Indian immigrants on H-4 dependent visas.

But the “dependent visa” puts many restrictions on the spouses, usually women, of the skilled workers who have an H1-B visa. The dependent visa holder is not allowed to work for pay until the lead migrant has gained permanent residency in the U.S., a process that can take six years or more. In some states, the dependent visa holders are not even allowed to drive.

When I studied families with an H1-B/H-4 dichotomy I found that most adult recipients of the H-4 dependent visas are highly qualified women. They experienced a loss of dignity and self-deprecation. Some women told me they felt they were thrown back into a model of the “traditional family” where women are not valued at all outside of the home. They talked about being rendered invisible, feeling lost, and for some, suicidal.

One of my study informants described her H-4 visa as a “vegetable visa meant to make you vegetate.” Others called it a “prison” or “bondage” visa. Another woman told me “You lose your individuality and in time all your confidence – and one day suddenly you realize you are just reduced to being a visa number in your head. It is scary – it’s like losing your head.”

Gaining permanent residency in the U.S., which would allow spousal employment, could take many years for H1-B workers. This means these women will be legally unable to work for years on end. Some of the women I spoke to simply could not handle their situation and decided to return to India. One high-tech worker who recently went through divorce told me, “we had absolutely no problem as a couple, it’s this visa situation…she was unhappy and depressed and it was not going to get better. We had to take the very hard and cruel way out – the many pains of being a foreign worker.”

As the U.S. debates Comprehensive Immigration Reform, and considers increasing the number of “high skilled foreign workers”, lawmakers should reconsider the constraints on spouses embedded within dependent visas.

Immigration policies designed to bring high-skilled workers and their dependents to the U.S. fill a need in the high-tech industry, but they fall short in building gender equal, stable, happy, and viable families. The 1950s are long gone. It is time to let wives work. Why force migrant families to live in the past?

Photo courtesy of Work and Travel USA via Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Lisa Cheby says:

    I am curious if any of the H1-B’s were granted to women and H-4s were given to their husbands? Also, have any of the women in H-4s applied for the H1-B and been denied? I am not implying that this would any more acceptable if men were also in the same situation as spouses and I am not implying the women are not put in an unjust situation. I am just curious as these two scenarios were not addressed in the article.

    • Hi, Lisa. There are certainly situations where the husband is the H-4. As for why H-4s do not apply for H1-B themselves, I think some of them applied and then did not win the lottery. Some worked hard, contributed to the country, paid tax and then maxed out their work visa limit of 6 years. My company tried to file PERM for me twice but I could not pass the recruitment stage because we are a big company and the PERM minimal requirements could not be customized for me. They have to apply for everyone that holds my position across the country. People that my company would never never hire could qualify for my job based on paper. However, I can’t choose to leave whenever I want to. I have a family here, my husband and my children.

  2. Seriously?! First off, there is not in reality a shortage of skilled workers. There are countless college grads drowning in debt while either unemployed, underemployed, or working for free as interns. The fact that this many workers are being brought in is a major issue to begin with. (Unless for instance, you’re the ONLY guy that knows how to cure cancer or something.) Now we’re supposed to hand over American jobs to their spouses as well, because their feelings are hurt?!

    It sounds like something written by a big business lobbyist to create a faux feminist issue.

    • santosh says:

      I just wanted to reply to this person “maber” that there is a shortage of high tech workers. Any government report on labor statistics will prove that for high tech sector. All the attempts of US govt to kick start STEM education and provide the good workforce will take years. Till then highly educated engineers ready to become immigrants for the sake of money and opportunity (from China/Korea/India/Brazil/Russia) are the only solution.

    • I wish there was not a shortage of non-visa workers. We often hire foreign employees because we cannot find anyone who can do the job who is a citizen. One of the problems I see is that we do not need English majors, artists, history buffs; we need engineers, statisticians and scientists, which Americans are not going into as much as forign nationals. Despite collecting resumes for over a year in some cases, we still have about half our department as foreign workers. We would LOVE to hire someone who does not need a visa, it is much cheaper since we won’t have to pay for an attorney and the visa fees, but also need the best we can find for the job.

    • If the is no shortage of High tech employees why 60% of the IT jobs are still open they are not filled.
      in US roughly 40- 60,000 it personals graduate but the demand is of 120,000 so what would you say about that.

    • H-4 Visas is something the government needs to seriously look into. It is unfair by all means to women who are educated and who are ready to work hard. FREEDOM is not forcing someone to be confined to house work and restricting them from contributing to the family income. There is a lot in discussion about legalizing illegal immigrants and maybe it is much needed, but who will hear the voice of the thousands of H4 visa holders LEGALLY waiting for their freedom?

      Why do the American Citizens fear for loss of jobs? You are certainly no less educated or qualified than an immigrant? So where does the fear come from? Nothing is more painful and hopeless a situation than holding someone a prisoner for the sake of your own insecurities.

  3. H-4 Wife says:

    I agree with you maber… I guess we need to really voice against these corporation, how dare they take the jobs from you all, get workers from other countries and bring their wive.. modern day slavery by corporation. This is the time. We all need to stand against these big corporation and make this a human rights issue. I am sure you will agree to that.
    I wish corporates wrote such an awesome article. Unfortunately we know the reality, they only write articles that make all of us think ‘those’ people are taking American jobs!! and let people (us) fight amongst each other while the govt and corporations enjoy the drama..

    Thank you Pallavi for such an awesome article. For someone who has been on a H4 visa, I am very grateful for your article.

  4. Great article! My work has been on international marriage migration and marriage migrants who come to the US face similar issues with VISA policies. After arrival in the US, there’s a two year period before the migrant can file for permanent resident status. The two year probation is to prove that the the marriage is legitimate because of past marriage frauds. The migrant does not file for her permanent status but her sponsoring spouse, in this case is a male. Within these two years, anything can happen so of course due to risk of being deported, her spouse can use the legal status as a leverage to stay in the relationship if the relationship is at risk. In addition, due to her legal status she can’t find work so she is dependent on her spouse financially. And if the migrant is an English limited speaker and has relied on immigration information which is usually in English to be translated to her in her native language by her spouse , that also produces barriers to knowledge and maintains dependency. All in all, immigration policies perpetuates barriers for marriage migrants, specifically female who pay the heavier price.

  5. First of all, US is a country of immigrants – today’s citizens were yesterday’s immigrants ! America is supposed to be the land of dreams, but little do people know the plight of the person accompanying the “specialized labor”. What needs to be highlighted is that H4s are not asking for jobs on a platter, all that is wanted is the chance to look for a job ! Imagine the plight of a person who cannot work because as a rule he/she should not earn money ! Yes, H4s can look for a sponsor, but the chance of getting a visa if you are not a high tech worker is negligible. And even if you do get a sponsor, once you are not selected in the lottery, the next chance is after a year and a half ! Some American friends have asked me, you are educated and smart, why don’t you work? Little did they know that I wanted to work and was more than capable, but I couldn’t ! It is a human rights issue and needs urgent resolution !
    Pallavi, thank you for choosing this topic and for giving H4s a voice in a country where they do not have any individuality or social security (pun intended :))

  6. H-4 Wife too says:

    I agree with Santosh and Gwen, and thanks Pallavi for a well written article. Maber it doesn’t justify to bind the wife when the Government just need’s the husband’s skills. You would know it if you were to accompany your husband to another land. And I know with statistics that the H4 wives can contribute positively to the US economy.

  7. Grace Hwang says:

    I agree whole-heatedly with this article, and thank the author for bringing this fact to the public’s attention. This forcing of women and other dependents (like their daughters) into a “traditional family” is simply archaic and sexist. Who in the world would think this way anymore? I am helping an African family whose father got a scholarship to study at our university, but his wife and daughter may not work. No reason given, other than this fact of forcing the family into the traditional mode. We are applying for an exemption, but it is costly: $390 without a guarantee that we will get the waiver. Can we start a petition to get this waiver for all dependents? What is our next step to truly reform immigration policy to what is should have always been: to reunify families and get good immigrants into the United States? I myself, a retired college professor, is also a product of immigration, but my father had to wait 5 years to bring us here, because in those days, only Europeans could bring their families over: Asians and Africans had to leave their families behind because they had to return to their countries, unless a job was secured for hem. Robert F. Kennedy changed this racist rule as Attorney General, when students brought this to his attention. Is there ANYONE in the current Obama administration who could be our Robert Kennedy? With best wishes to all who want to help change this policy!! Grace

  8. Being on H4 visa and an admin of a H4 visa advocacy group on FB ( H4 visa, a curse), the article is a true replica of our situation. Thanks a lot for making people aware about this cause.

  9. Hi
    This is Monali. i am on H4 / Dependent visa. My husband was bit me once in a week. I called polish. and my husband said get out my home. my Brother is here in USA. so I went at my brother home. my husband never calling me. so I will got to lawyer. so How i will get justice in USA ?

  10. Hi, I found you article very interesting and it made me feel I am not the only one who thinks that these visas for spouses are really demeaning for women. That is also why I started my own blog, where I also posted an article about the hard life of spouses in the USA, having being one myself. I hope it can help to further discussion.

  11. This is the most horrible situation ever. Being denied a human right and being left to do the house chores when you have spent your whole life studying to get somewhere and have a career, feels humiliating and demeaning. I have been so depressed and lonely in the beginning that I considered leaving the US. That almost ruined my marriage. Plus, being financially dependent of your husband (when before you made your own money) is beyond humiliating. You shouldn’t feel that way, but it does. Some women have to keep asking for money if they need anything. How ridiculous is that? We are not talking about unqualified women here. We are talking about people with BA’s, masters, even PHD’s. Brilliant and capable women who could be contributing to the economy of the US. I really hope this changes, because it simply does not make any sense.

  12. what is the solution to this problem?? any work arounds — please suggest

  13. Hi, I read this article with great interest and sadness.
    I really do sympathize with the participants you interviewed, and feel a lot of the emotions they feel.
    I moved to the USA in Nov. 2012 with my husband. He was awarded a H1-B visa, and as we had barely been married 4 months, I thought it would be disasterous for us to spend the first year of our marriage apart. I accepted to come and resigned from a great job: I had just been offered a permanent position as assistant prof. in a University in England. To come to the USA with my husband, I was assigned the dependent visa.
    I have a PhD, a distinction in my MA and a first class Bachelors degree, as well as 5 years of International teaching at HE level, professional teaching qualifications and several publications. In the USA, I am a housewife and struggling to find a University who will sponsor my H1-B visa.
    In some cases, I have been shortlisted for interviews and adjunct positions, but once the Universities know that I need a visa, they immediately retract the job offer and I am back to square one.
    I am even finding it difficult to volunteer my time as a guest professor or lecturer as most Universities are fearful of allowing someone on a dependent visa to come in and deliver a lecture (even though I specify it is for free and that I will deliver one class in each institution). I have spent so much time questioning why I have been unable to get a job out here. I thought that perhaps it’s my field (academy doesn’t have a lot of money to pay for visas). Perhaps it’s because I teach sociology (social sciences knowledge is often trivialized as “fluffly stuff” against the “hard” sciences). Perhaps its where I am based (Houston has some good Universities, but there are very few job openings in Sociology and some of the Universities specify that they want a permanent resident or citizen to apply, or they are looking for someone with a degree from a regionally accredited University!). after my confidence has been crushed so many times, I began thinking that perhaps I am just not competitive enough for the current market, so now I have dedicate most of time trying to write and publish papers (but it’s hard wen you’re not affiliated to an institution, as you do not have access to the journals or books that you need). I am still emailing professors to let me deliver a lecture or two, submitting papers for US conferences (but it’s hard when you don’t have a salary and your husband earns makes 50% of what he earned in England!!!). I agree that the whole process is demoralizing. The things we professionals do to diversify our skills-set and improve our Resumes!

  14. Thank you for giving H4 holders a voice. I am also in a similar situation and like many others I am very well education and burning to put my knowledge to practice. I think we need to have more people speaking out about this issue and then maybe it will then get some attention. This is not just an issue about being able to work and make money it is about the right to be human.


  15. Hello ladies,
    I have come across this terrific article for the second time and I was compelled to re-read all the posts.
    I already posted a comment but I want to expand a bit this time. I felt the necessity to share my overwhelming experience as a spouse on a dependent visa and for this reason I started a blog, which relates mainly with people who come back, but in truth there is a lot about my days in the USA.It has indeed been helpful to come to terms with what all this massive experience has done to me. I struggled for all the reasons mentioned by all of you. One also touched me particularly: being highly educated seems to be a curse rather than an accomplishment and Samie explains this issue very well.
    It is an issue that cannot wait any longer, slavery has been abolished and spouses are treated as a belonging!
    Outrageous! I am from Europe and I have lived all my life with a freedom that apparently I took for granted while in the Land of the Free I lost it!!

    I started a blog for this purpose that is something between a literary journey as we

  16. Hi,

    I have been on h4 visa for the past three years. I would love to study and enhance my qualifications.
    I would love to study, unfortunately, the tuition fees are very high and my husband is paying off couple of his loans. So its not possible to take a loan.
    Neverthless, I am volunteering gaining experience in my teaching field, learning the curriculum here and expanding my network too.
    Hopefully In a years time, my husband can take a loan and I will be able to study.

    Till then, wish that the govt passes the h4 visa Rule, where spouses of h1 b are allowed to work.


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