Housewives, Babymakers, and Sex Partners

Today on Here and Now, Robin Young featured Meghna Damani, the maker of a new documentary about being made a “dependent spouse” by virtue of a U.S. immigration visa, Hearts Suspended. Damani, while living in India, was an accomplished executive with a master’s degree in marketing, and history in journalism and modeling. Having always been able to earn her own way, she thought nothing of following her husband to the United States while he worked, and she did so on an H-4 visa, a visa that allows immediate family members of the H-1B visa holders to lawfully come and stay in the U.S. What is doesn’t allow H-4 status women to do is get a social security number or work. In Damani’s artist’s statement, she says:

This film is a piece of my life that I hope will tell the story of the thousands of educated women like myself who come here every year as doctors, lawyers, architects, business professionals, artists, etc. and are forced to stay at home for an indefinite period of time. Many are abused, exploited or in just plain denial that they have lost the most precious years of their lives – irrevocably.

One of the biggest obstacles, because H-4 visas can be upgraded to working visas, is that the visa holder has to find a company that is not only willing to hire them but is also willing to go through the trouble of also legally sponsoring the women as immigrant workers. Jobs, because the women are generally highly educated, are easy to find — sponsorship is not. And because sponsorhip is so difficult to find, essentially, as Shivali Shah says in the trailer, these women are “being brought in[to the United States] only in the most base functions as women: housewives, babymakers, and sex partners.”

Listening to the radio show, it was easy to see why these women are so isolated. Their social lives revolve around their husbands’ work contacts, their independence is dependent on their husbands’ good graces, their education and work experience is for nothing. It’s hard to explain why it’s so difficult to friends and family back home because their husbands are national golden boys, and because of the opportunity narratives the U.S. cultivates worldwide.

Admittedly, I’m rather ignorant of legalities when it comes to immigration to the United States, but this segment spoke to me because of the kinds of gender divides it promotes by legal limitations. Is there anyone with H-4 immigration status in the house?

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25 comments for “Housewives, Babymakers, and Sex Partners

  1. harlemjd
    April 14, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Not to mention that even if your new job is willing to sponsor you, H-1B visas are very hard to come by, because there’s a limit to how many are issued every year. And if you don’t have a college degree (and therefore aren’t elligible for an H-1B), you’re chances of working legally are even lower. I used to work in business immigration and saw a number of spouses with serious problems with depression that, IMO, were largely caused by not being able to work.

    That said, why would an H-4 visa holder need a spouse’s permission to get a license or a bank account?

  2. April 14, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Sorry, Joe Smith, and any other commenter in his vein: Comments belittling women in favor of jingoism will be deleted. Thanks and have a good night.

  3. lilacsigil
    April 14, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    A friend of mine (a New Zealand woman married to a Japanese man) was in this situation. While she was not in an abusive situation at all, she said it was incredibly frustrating that she and her husband were suddenly living in entirely different worlds. It was a huge stress on the relationship (especially as his family was pressuring him to have kids and now was “the perfect time”) and she said that only the fact that she got heavily involved in volunteer work saved their relationship. Eventually they moved back to Japan.

  4. Turbopixie
    April 14, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    My dad moved to the US when I was six, erm *cough!* years ago. We saw him a couple of times a year during the school holidays. Still, at the time I wondered why my mum hadn’t leapt at the chance of multichannel TV and easy access to shopping malls. It’s only when I consider that she wouldn’t have been able to work that I realise that she’d have essentially been swapping life as a MBA-wielding, factory-running, kickass regional manager at the top of her game for life as a domestic drudge with nothing to look forward to but that day’s epidosde of Falcon Crest. And ironing my dad’s socks.

  5. libdevil
    April 14, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    I’ve had several friends go through this, and their frustration with the system is evident. It’s a pretty ridiculous situation, and one that really doesn’t get a lot of attention. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to draw much sympathy from anybody who doesn’t know somebody affected by it, given the xenophobic sentiment stoked by the traditional media. It can’t be easy to sell the idea of making it easier for immigrants or temporary residents fill more jobs, but especially in the current climate.

  6. whipdizzy
    April 14, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    My best friend came over from England on an H4 with her husband. It was very damaging to her emotionally to have to once been a successful partner in a marriage then not have any independence. Once he became abusive and she decided to leave him, he attempted to have her and her children deported so he would not have to pay child support. She had no ss# to get an apartment or a bank account or anything. To even try to get anyone at the INS to help her has been nearly impossible. Fortunately she was able to get a student visa and is now married again, but is still trying to iron out the legal mess. It becomes another issue when her daughter turns 18 in a few years and faces deportation again.

  7. less13lee
    April 15, 2009 at 7:45 am

    This is an interesting subject to me. I teach conversational ESL to people mostly of the Asian persuasion. A lot of my students are college-aged men and women, but some are the housewives of visiting professors or researchers. When I read their files, I often find that these women held pretty powerful positions in their home country- many talk about the disconnect between their lives here versus their lives abroad.
    Luckily, as of yet, I have not taught anyone who has indicated that she has a bad home situation. In truth, I don’t know what I’d do if one disclosed that to me.

  8. anonymous for this post
    April 15, 2009 at 9:40 am

    In Indian culture though, it’s often expected (much like Western culture circa 1955) that once a woman is married, she stops working. Not “after having kids”–after getting *married*. I have several cousins-in-law who have done this, one of whom will marry this Saturday and give up her career after working for many years. Her father in law expects it, and she’s been looking forward to marriage so she wouldn’t “have to work.”

    I”m not saying all Indians do this, but at least in my mother-in-law’s fairly wealthy family, they still do.

    So sometimes being a “housewife, babymaker, and sex partner” is all that is expected of these women after the wedding anyway, regardless of where they live.

    Then after the wedding happens, reality sets in and they realize that they’d really like to do something. One of the cousins who originally made that choice after marriage now works very busily at a job of her own.

  9. jen
    April 15, 2009 at 9:51 am

    I wonder how much of this policy is related to stereotypes of women in other parts of the world.

  10. April 15, 2009 at 11:57 am

    A friend of mine linked to an article from the Toronto Star about this, and how the visa restrictions are making some immigration hopefuls come to Canada, instead. More here.

    The couple in that article decided to come to Canada, because they didn’t want to deal with the H-4 limitations.

  11. April 15, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    It’s not secret that the US immigration system needs serious reform but what may need reform as well are the “opportunity narratives” you mentioned.

    I don’t know of any country in the world that so cultivates a you’ll be better off here than where you are image moreso that the US and, while this is very true in comparison to much of the world, it is no longer universally true. Jobs are no longer plentiful. We’re no longer the world’s growth leader. Immigrants are no longer welcomed, if indeed, they ever really were.

    My father found this out first hand twenty years ago and ultimately decided to return to his homeland and he’s a native speaker of English so, ostensibly, his immigrant experience should have been much easier than that of so many others.

  12. April 15, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Yikes, this hits close to home for me – I hold an H1-B and am in the States, but because of the current state of the economy am considering going home to Canada in the next few months because more and more I feel like I handicapped myself by moving here. I completely understand why people are not all that sympathetic, because I know that Americans are hurting now too. But I wish at a younger age I had had the foresight to realize that being in the U.S. on a work visa would throw up huge obstacles in terms of advancement.

    I know a few H4 holders who are just sitting around New York, most of them with postgraduate degrees. They are all women. It’s dispiriting, really, to think about what they could contribute.

  13. April 15, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    My entire education is in the United States and at the moment I’m working for a organization on my F1-OPT and they refuse to sponsor me for a H1B. They justified their refusal to sponsor me with the claim that since I have a Masters in a liberal arts field…H1B would anyways be difficult to get. H1Bs are meant only for super- specialists according to them!

  14. Alexandra Lynch
    April 15, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    Immigration law needs to be reformed from the ground up, is all I can say.

    I am having to work very hard these days not to let xenophobia take root, or at least not to let it get any worse than it already is. I didn’t know I was racist at all until I married and moved into a mixed working-class neighborhood. I didn’t know I was at all xenophobic until the economy tightened, and kept tightening. Stories like this help me remember that we are all in this together. Thanks.

  15. harlemjd
    April 15, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    SanFranDesi – does your liberal arts field have any job possibilities (at your current job or elsewhere) at non-profits? Because “research positions” at not-for-profit organizations are exempt from the limit on H-1Bs. And they’re not limited to scientific research either; I helped an ex-co-worker get one as a legal researcher.

    whipdizzy – agreed, dependent’s visas of all kinds are a receipe for abuse. As for your friend, is she submitting her immigration paperwork on her own? I only know what you just wrote, but I can think of a couple of possible scenarios for how her kid could be protected.

    If anyone on this thread is having or knows anyone who is having problems because they don’t have a soc. number, try applying for an Individual Tax Identification Number.

  16. Farhat
    April 16, 2009 at 1:16 am

    SanFranDesi: H1Bis ostensibly meant for specialized jobs only. That corporations have bastardized it to the point anyone with a 2-week HTML course could get a H1-B visa is besides the point. That said, having a specialized degree doesn’t necessarily work in your favor. I have a PhD and applied for a H1-B last Oct. Now as I have specialized skills, I am considered a security risk and have to go through an additional security check (visa Mantis) that can literally take forever (I am still waiting for it to finish though it wouldn’t matter since I closed my position in the US). After waiting for 3 months, I looked around and found a position in India which is actually better (significantly work wise and slightly monetarily) than the one I had in US. Moreover, my wife does not need to wonder about whether or not she can find a sponsor in the US for an H1-B. We decided that if we do work outside India we will only choose countries where both of us can work and would not have these issues to deal with.

  17. Farhat
    April 16, 2009 at 1:19 am

    I could add to the previous post that my PhD is from US and I lived there for over 9 years before getting this security check. I contributed a couple of tens of thousands of dollars to your social security net that I will never be seeing.

  18. April 16, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Harlemjd–It is in film production and literature. Thank you for the information.

  19. April 16, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    and I will try to look into this.

  20. B
    April 17, 2009 at 12:11 am

    I understand your annoyance, though I am pretty sure they are being honest about the almost impossibility of sponsoring you. I am from the US and also have a liberal arts degree. I arranged a job as a research assistant for a professor in a social sciences field in Australia (where my partner is a citizen and was in school), only to find they could not sponsor me because my education and training couldn’t be ticked off a box of very specific skill sets. Moreover, even though the professor had his own consulting firm as well and would have been happy to do any and all paper work, he would have had to prove that he had advertised my job and no one else in Australia was capable of doing the work on top of the skill set list, etc. It does seem counter productive for countries to make migration for educated people so difficult. To have smart educated women sitting here twiddling their thumbs is not only a waste for their own lives, but to America as well.

  21. Vic
    April 17, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    I am in the same position except my husband is on an “O” visa which means he has extraordinary skills and (by implication) I have none! I’m a nurse and therefore have highly sought after skills. It’s a shame that there is a blanket ban on working for people in our position and that we can’t be considered on a case by case basis – or even that, considering some visas are non-immigrant, we can’t work for the short time we’re here and contribute something to the economy!
    I’m glad someone is getting the word out there that this is happening – sometimes I think that these sorts of things are just antiquated laws that have never been looked at or updated because nobody has ever drawn attention to them.
    Can someone tell me where I can get hold of the film to view it?

  22. GME275
    April 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    I have difficulty feeling bad for a supposedly educated and accomplished person who “thought nothing” of making such a radical life change as immigrating without doing all their research up front and knowing what they were getting into. It’s not as though the terms of the visa were a secret which these accomplished professionals had no way of learning about in advance!

    In fact in five minutes of Googling I was able not only to learn about the visa’s provisions, but that some of the claims made about it in the video were exaggerated or false. For example, true that you can’t get an SSN, but you can get a taxpayer ID and there’s nothing to keep you from opening a bank account with it. You can also attend school. The restriction on self-employment is ridiculous, because entrepreneurs only add value to the economy, not taking anything from anybody. But the work restrictions exist precisely because policy makers know that overwhelmingly, immigrant women will take the opportunity to work if they can (this stuff about “their culture” is nonsense, incidentally – I’ve known many South Asian women all my life and all of them work); and rightly or wrongly, they wrote the law so as not to create a daisy-chain of foreign workers stemming from a single visa. While the lack of provision for women who find themselves in an abusive relationship far from home is alarming, there’s an argument to be made (and probably was made during the drafting of policy) that if you’re only here because you want to live with the person who’s coming here to work, and your relationship with them ends, then you haven’t gotten a reason to be here anymore. That doesn’t do justice to the messy situations people often find themselves in, and much depends on the application, but in and of itself it’s not an atrocity.

    And certainly no woman in the United States, regardless of documented status or lack thereof, needs her husband’s legal permission to go to a doctor. That’s just a lie. Although some of the unforeseen consequences of the law are ugly, I take strong exception to the idea that the U.S. government somehow deliberately designed the law to make things as bad as possible for foreign women, or that our lawmakers are somehow responsible for all the crazy stuff that can happen when people try – as we all, in some sense, must – fit our lives into a one-size-fits-all legal regime. According to the old saying “the law is an ass,” and this seems to be an example of that. But there’s a big difference between the law being an ass and the law being a deliberate, nefarious scheme to oppress.

    As a mother, I have no words for hearing “babymaker” described as a “base function.” Not “basic,” mind you – “base.” The title of this post implicitly puts those words in the mouths of – well, who exactly isn’t clear… policymakers? South Asian men? That turned out to be dishonest too.

    So the moral of the story is, “if your career is essential to your personal identity and self-worth, don’t quit your job to immigrate on a non-working visa.” Simple, really.

    I actually agree that “dependent spouse” is an outdated, perhaps even offensive category. I understand that to many people a law like this looks like it is dictating people’s personal arrangements in a 1950s direction. I would absolutely agree if it were anything other than an immigration issue. No country is obligated to take anyone. (I am actually in the process of temporarily immigrating out of the U.S., so I am particularly mindful of that.) The law here isn’t “families can come, but only those in which the wife doesn’t work”; there’s no sex discrimination in working visas, and one can only imagine that if the women are really so highly qualified, they can apply for one on their own. In fact, I know many immigrant women who have, my own mother included. What the law says is, “if you get a working visa, you’re welcome to bring your non-working spouse.” I disagree with this as a matter of policy – if you’re good enough to be here at all, you’re good enough to participate in our economy – but there’s a big difference between disagreeing with a policy and believing that said policy is a nefarious misogynist plot. And the political reality around immigration is that the only way you could convert H4s to working privileges, or start giving out H1Bs on a couples basis, would be to reduce the total number of H1Bs.

    Note, also, that these are not women who *need* to work. The unemployed woman had better wardrobe and beauty supplies than I do. If they weren’t doing better with the husband just working here than with both of them working back home, they obviously never would have come in the first place (again, spare the inaccurate and racist comments about “their culture”). Of course it is unjust to deny people the ability to support themselves as needed – as in the case of abused women, which even the video was forced to admit was already corrected several years ago by the VAWA – but I don’t think we’re under any obligation to grant working opportunities on grounds of personal fulfillment. It may even be that what they thought was a “powerful” career back home was really something they floated into on class privilege, and they don’t actually have many portable skills. Even among Americans, one often sees such self-deception about one’s economic worth, particularly among those in generic white-collar business work as opposed to credentialed professionals. Most of the well-groomed cubicle dwellers in your local office park probably wouldn’t do too well in a foreign country, either.

    Also, what’s with the Soka Gakkai angle? Has nobody else picked up on this? It seems more like a recruiting tool directed to similarly situated women – I thought the ominous, unsympathetic depiction of Hindu ritual was pretty yucky – than a serious contribution to political discourse. Are they trying to increase their vulnerability to their religious message by making the situation seem worse than it actually is, e.g. the “going to the doctor” thing? Creepy.

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