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

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.