Unemployed And Alone: US H4 Visa Restrictions Are A Blow To Women Stranded In India

In the first week of March, Sakshi Srivastava Sah travelled to India from Dallas to visit her mother. Two weeks later, she found out she was pregnant, just as India announced a complete lockdown, including cancelling international flights, to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Her husband Deepak, a software engineer, was in the US on a H1B visa, working for a multinational company in Texas.

As the number of cases continued rising in both India and the US, the 32-year-old homemaker had no option but to wait for consulates and flights to open so that she could get her H4 dependent visa stamped and fly back to her husband. But she got a shock last week when US President Donald Trump suspended the issuing of H1B visas, and dependent H4 visas, leaving thousands of families in the lurch. The purported reason for the ban was to reduce unemployment in the US, which is reeling under the effects of the coronavirus-induced lockdown.

Indians, who account for 75% of H-1B petitions and over 90% for the H4 visa, will be the worst affected by the new order.

As news of the order came in, a staggering number of women began posting anxious messages on social media groups of H1B and H4 visa holders, seeking legal counsel about the avenues available to them. It was clear from the messages that, apart from the people whose jobs were in danger because of the executive order, hundreds of women who had applied for dependent visas or extensions of it were also suddenly facing an indefinite period of uncertainty. Worse, it was likely that they would have to deal with it without the support of their spouses. 

As news of the order came in, a staggering number of women began posting anxious messages on social media groups of H1B and H4 visa holders, seeking legal counsel about the avenues available to them.

Srivastava said that she had already been suffering from anxiety because of the lockdown and the executive order dealt a huge psychological blow.

“Every day, I go through a different level of stress and I am afraid that it will affect my baby,” Srivastava, who is now five months pregnant, said. Srivastava’s only support system in India is her mother, who lives in Gorakhpur and works in sales in a garments shop.

“This is my first pregnancy. I wake up with unfamiliar pains on some days, but I mostly keep it to myself. I don’t feel like telling my mother, who is also alone and will worry. I also don’t always tell my husband because he has to work, and this will be an added stress,” Srivastava said.

She has also been managing everything from ultrasound appointments to doctor’s visits by herself in the midst of a pandemic. “Doctor visits are the most scary. There is no option, so I have to do it and mostly alone. I am constantly worried about catching something,” she said.

She has also been managing everything from ultrasound appointments to doctor’s visits by herself in the midst of a pandemic.

Apart from the anxiety around health and being away from loved ones, there is also the financial uncertainty to contend with. Many women told HuffPost India that they had quit their stable jobs ahead of moving to the US, and are now worried about how they will find another job in the weak economic climate.

According to an article on Quartz, 90% of H4 visa holders are women and at least 70% of H1B visa holders in America are Indian. The new executive order, therefore, disproportionately affects a large percentage of Indian women, some of who are now stranded in India like Srivastava, without jobs, unsure if they can take up one at the moment or having to take care of children all by themselves in the midst of a pandemic.

US-based immigration attorney Prashant Dubey told HuffPost India that ‘there is a personal, professional, and economic impact of not being able to obtain a visa stamp to come back to the US if they are currently stranded in India’.

He has fielded at least 50 emails and dozens of calls since the executive order came in. In a series of Facebook Live sessions he has held, dozens of viewers have raised the issue of their spouses stranded in India without a stamped dependent visa. “If they are abroad, and currently do not have a valid H4 visa stamped, it is a tough situation. These individuals will likely have to wait until December 31, 2020 to be issued a dependent visa or will have to craft an argument to qualify under the National Interest Waiver exception,” Dubey said. 

NEWLY-WED AND SEPARATED

27-year-old Steffi David quit her job as an operations manager in Bengaluru in January before her wedding in February, following which she was planning to move to the US with her husband. On March 18, she travelled to New Delhi for her visa interview, which got cancelled amid the lockdown. Since then, she has been living alone in New Delhi in a friend’s vacant apartment but is unsure whether to stay on in the hope that the consulate opens or to leave for her parents’ house in Tamil Nadu.

“I quit my job because I was all set to move to the US and had planned to start a family. Now, I don’t have a job and I am not sure how long it will take the visa restrictions to be lifted either,” David said.

David’s post on a Facebook group, detailing how she stayed with her for barely 10 days before he had to fly back, drew dozens of comments from women who claimed to be in a similar situation — having resigned from jobs or dropped out of projects ahead of migrating to the US, and now stuck in India without their spouses and with no idea what comes next.

Various articles and studies have pointed out that many professionally trained and educated Indian women have been forced to lead somewhat humiliating and dependent lives in the US because they are on the H4 visas, which prevents them from having jobs. Over a dozen women told HuffPost India over the past few days that they now fear they will have to lead similar lives here in India, without even the reassurance of spousal support they’d have in the US.

29-year-old Sharmila Kavin’s experience is similar to that of David. She quit her job as a senior information technology consultant in Chennai in January this year, set to move to California where her husband, a tech consultant, had leased a new house ahead of Kavin’s arrival. She also wanted to take a break and spend some time with her partner, whom she had not met for nearly a year. In February, they got married and she applied for a H4 visa. Her husband left three weeks after the wedding, and she’s still here.

Apart from the money they wasted on visa procedures and other formalities during an economic downturn, Kavin said the executive order banning H4 visas has scuttled her life beyond measure.

“Apart from being away from him, I am so stressed that I have not been able to start looking for a job. Also, the IT industry has taken a huge hit, people are getting laid off, it is so difficult to find a job now,” Kavin said. Her husband is also paying higher rent to live alone after moving out from an apartment he shared with friends.

Apart from the money they wasted on visa procedures and other formalities during an economic downturn, Kavin said the executive order banning H4 visas has scuttled her life beyond measure.

“I am not sure if I should start looking for projects or a job, or whether I should wait patiently till the end of the year and then try moving,” Kavin said, pointing out that it is unlikely she would find work for at least six months amid all these uncertainties. She has already been out of a job for over 6 months now.

N* found herself in a similar, frustrating situation after the executive order dashed her hopes of going to the US to be with her husband. The couple have also had to dip into their savings. The 31-year-old, who is from Assam, quit her stable job at an IT company ahead of her wedding in February this year. “I was hoping to live with my husband in the US and then consider what to do with my professional life. I was excited to begin a new life there,” she said.

Like Sharmila, N has found herself in a soup as their bills have doubled in the past few months, and is now worried about the state of their savings.

Dubey said that several women have been asking if they are eligible for the National Waiver Exception, but most of them aren’t. According to the statute, a person’s visa can be approved if they can show that they ”…are critical to the defense, law enforcement, diplomacy, or national security of the United States; are involved with the provision of medical care to individuals who have contracted COVID-19 and are currently hospitalized; are involved with the provision of medical research at United States facilities to help the United States combat COVID-19; or are necessary to facilitate the immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States.” 

Though there is no separate filing process, an applicant has to convince the US authorities that they qualify for an exception for reasons mentioned above. And that, is nearly impossible to prove in most of the cases.

“My husband took up a bigger, more expensive rented place thinking I will come. Now we are having to pay for rent and his own expenditures there and a similar set of expenditures here because of this order,” N said, pointing out that in a volatile job market and economy, such an arrangement is not only emotionally draining but also financially unstable.

“If I could keep my job, I would have had a salary and how I am looking at being without a job for a year. Since I had worked for very long and had been in a long-distance relationship for two years, I was really looking forward to a break and spending some time with my husband till his H1B lasted,” she said.

N is stuck in Bengaluru where she had been living in a rented apartment for the last few years and was scheduled to go to Chennai for a visa interview. The interview got cancelled.  “I have personal responsibilities, I have a brother to look after he is still in college, and my mother who stays alone in Assam. Plus I have to keep paying rent here,” N said, adding the financial stress of her situation is tiring her.

“Financially, I am now dependent very much on my spouse. We are working on developing our career skills and getting prepared for next year,” N said.

RESPONSIBILITIES, RESPONSIBILITIES

The pandemic and the visa ban have also affected couples who had thought hard before taking on financial obligations.

Anu Kamboj from Karnal, Haryana, travelled back to India to take care of a family emergency earlier this year, and is now stuck. The 28-year-old quit her job as an HR generalist in a well-paying company in 2019 to be with her husband, who is in the US on a H1B visa.

The couple have a car loan to pay for in the US, apart from the lease that her husband had taken when she travelled briefly to the country last year. Now, Kamboj is in India without a job and with little hope of seeing her husband this year, while they keep paying for separate living expenses in two cities.

“We have a car loan and apartment lease. Both were very well planned keeping in mind the period of approved petition/extension. But nobody would have thought of such a ban which is contributing to stress as we would need to pay for the loan and lease irrespective of the government rulings,” Anu said. She added that the new complication and resultant increase in expenses have stressed out her elderly in-laws and parents.

“They can’t stop worrying about us. And from what I have read, hypertension is dangerous for them during this COVID-19 pandemic,” Anu said.
Some of the affected women are also offering each other support and advice.

As the executive order came in, H* suggested on a Facebook group that women like her who were stranded in India should form a group to discuss the avenues available for them. The group she formed on Telegram amassed 500 members overnight.

H, quit her well-paying tech job in an MNC to raise her children when she moved to the US with her husband. She and her two children, a six-and-a-half-year-old girl and two-and-a-half-year-old boy, travelled to India for a family emergency in January. With the new visa diktat and travel restrictions, H is now stuck in her mother’s house at Hyderabad for at least the next six months.

We have a car loan and apartment lease. Both were very well planned keeping in mind the period of approved petition/extension. But nobody would have thought of such a ban which is contributing to stress

“My daughter lashes out and then breaks down frequently because she can’t make sense of what is going on. We have not ventured out in days, she misses school and more importantly, she cannot fathom why she can’t meet her father for this long,” H said.

Apart from caring for the toddler, who needs to begin playschool soon, homeschooling her daughter, and dealing with the stress of a pandemic, H’s fortitude is running out fast. “Consoling her for 7 months has become difficult because I myself am not able to come to terms with the present ongoing pandemic, ban and consulate closure,” she said.

They are also facing the financial strain of footing the bill for two households.

Nearly all 500 women in H’s Telegram group on Telegram are in similar situations.

“I wonder what difference 500 women who don’t have the right to work, and hence can’t affect employment opportunities of Americans, make to the American economy,” H said, adding that the women in the group discuss the mental health challenges of living apart, raising families by themselves and the pandemic.

“There are some mothers who have come to India for a family emergency, leaving their kids and husband at home. Now they haven’t met their kids in months. Some are pregnant women who couldn’t travel back because of the pandemic and don’t see themselves going back this year due to the visa situation. Their babies were born without their fathers being around and are also a few months old already. The emotional trauma of something like this for a new mother is huge!” H pointed out.

Sakshi has been spending sleepless nights worrying about a similar situation with her first baby, due in November. Even if her husband manages to travel back to be with her, it would just be for a short while. With the job market almost at a standstill, Sakshi is worried that her present routine of dealing with the challenges of pregnancy alone will continue even when the baby arrives.

“I go through mood swings, fears, strange physical pains and what not. I have to manage medical appointments, scanning all by myself. And doing it in conjunction with Covid is all together is a separate challenge. We were settled and have taken on commitments based on my husband’s job in the US, so I cannot ask him to leave everything and come back. I cannot even tell him all these problems because he’s all alone there and would make him panic more. So I’m keeping all these things within me and it’s killing me inside,” Sakshi said.

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