The ‘American Dream Tax’ and the Quiet Suffering of Immigrant Wives

The sexist nature of immigration law places immigrant women on ‘dependent visas’ that rob them of the rights that American women have had for decades and enable domestic abuse.

An immigration rights rally on May Day in Washington, D.C., in 2007. (takomabibelot / Flickr)

The staticky sound of hate through a landline, shards of broken glass on the pavement, jagged Camry windows gleaming bright under the harsh sun: This is how Hasan Minhaj describes the “American dream tax.” The hate crime his family experienced in the wake of Sept. 11 is a testament to the fact that becoming American comes at a steep price. 

But while the violence and stereotypes all immigrants face have become increasingly well-documented in recent years, we have overlooked the fact that this issue is heavily gendered. The price paid by immigrant women is much steeper. The American immigration system is plagued by systemic gender inequality—among its many other faults—and reform is long overdue. 

The passage of civil rights legislation throughout the past few decades has eased sex-based employment discrimination. American women today can find the work they want and achieve financial independence. Yet without their husband’s consent, it is almost impossible for women on some visas to obtain the work authorization required to find a job legally.

Without work authorization, these women are deprived of Social Security numbers, making it much more difficult to open bank accounts, build credit history, or even get driver’s licenses. The restriction of these fundamental freedoms result in barriers to autonomy that permanent residents and citizens do not face. 

The very existence of some women in the United States is completely dependent on their husband. Upon divorce or the death of their spouse, they will find themselves deported

The root cause of these issues is embedded into U.S. immigration law: the distinction between primary and dependent visa holders. Like many of the other failings in U.S. legislation and policy, the text of the law appears to be gender-neutral on the surface. The outcome is anything but equal.

Data from the USCIS shows that a staggering 93 percent of the 136,393 H-4 visa holders are women. The H-4 dependent visa is meant for spouses and children, and serves as the counterpart to the H-1B primary visa. Since the majority of dependent visa holders are women, it follows that women disproportionately suffer from the discrimination leveled at dependent visa holders. 

Although there is a lack of data illustrating the gender disparities for less common visas, there’s good reason to believe similar inequities exist for other employment based visas. Karen Panetta, a professor of computer engineering from Tufts University, explained that prospective employers of high-skilled immigrant workers—largely those in the STEM sector—tend to favor men. And a job offer from a willing employer is the path towards primary visa holder status. This bias towards men when handing out job offers is a key reason behind the stark gender divide.

Furthermore, gender norms from the countries immigrants come from can shape the roles that household members assume upon coming to the U.S. Immigrants increasingly hail from countries that have an uneven gender split in labor force participation, with lower rates of women that work. Men are assumed to be the rightful breadwinners. So, when it comes to deciding which spouse’s career to sacrifice, the woman is first on the chopping block.

But if these underlying causes explain part of the inequality immigrant women experience, U.S. immigration law actively aids and abets this injustice. Dependent immigrants who are not yet eligible to apply for a green card are banned from working entirely. Others are forced to apply for an Employment Authorization Document(EAD), a process that takes up to a year, costs 410 dollars, and requires access to documents that primary visa holders—their spouse—often gatekeep. It’s not surprising the H-4 dependent visa has earned itself the nickname of the “involuntary housewife visa.”

Indeed, the future of dependent visa holders is almost completely reliant on whether or not they stay married. In the eyes of U.S. immigration law, spouses are essentially equivalent to children. These spouses have about as much control over their legal status in the country as a 12-year-old. Their life is one of borrowed legality, their status something that can be revoked and manipulated by the primary visa holder. 

These conditions often breed violence and abuse within households, including both physical and emotional abuse. Yet again, the dependent status of these women create skewed power dynamics and render them unable to speak out. There is a severe lack of data on the intimate partner violence experienced by immigrant women, but both Asian American domestic violence organizations and Asian women themselves have repeatedly cited immigration restrictions as a key contributor to the violence in their community. 

Through my past experience working with dependent visa holders, I know that these issues experienced by women are not individual; they are systemic and widespread. The careless rules crafted by legislators decades ago have birthed indignities that persist today. 

The next time comprehensive immigration reform is passed (if there is a next time), we must remove the barriers to employment and an independent existence currently holding these women down. Immigrant women are paying more than their fair share of the “American dream tax.”

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Faye Zhang works with The Hidden Dream to provide resources to those on a dependent visa—children and spouses alike—and is on an H4 visa herself. She is located near in Minnesota.