The scope of this article is not to discuss whether or not the H visas should be allowed. Instead it centers on the viewpoint that given that the H visas exist as an immigration policy, the H4 aspect of it needs to be brought out in the open for a reasoned debate.
The H4 visa is extended to the immediate family (spouse and children) of the principal H1 holder for their stay in the United States. The recipients of this visa are allowed to study but not work during their stay here. Although the policy is gender neutral on paper, in reality most H4 visa holders are women. Actually this trend that once the ‘man’ of the household moves into a new location, the rest of his family follows is not even surprising. In a patriarchal society, it is very much an expectation built into the broader socio-cultural milieu over thousands of years of conditioning.
Now that we acknowledge that this gender inequity exists (across nationalities and cultures), the question that arises is that whether government policies should help reinforce them or mitigate them. The issue needs to be discussed from two viewpoints – one from the angle of the individual and the other from the perspective of the broader society to which she belongs.
From the standpoint the individual:
Many women who have a H1 highly skilled spouse are highly skilled too in their own right and have had successful careers in their home country. For them, the shift (in geography) is more a matter of timing owing to a career move by their spouses. (It would be highly improbable to expect that both spouses find themselves in a situation where their employers file for their visas at the same time for the same country.) The H4 visa puts a career break on these women during the prime productive years of their life. In many cases this break in career is similar to what one undergoes during childbirth. This brings a ‘double-dip depression’ in their careers putting them many years behind their peers. Some women work around the problem by planning to either start their families or pursue higher education during this phase. While these are ways to circumvent the problem, the underlying issue essentially remains un-addressed.
As a result of this migration, these individuals undergo a cultural transition where they need to create a new social support system in the host country. A major platform for social bonding is the workplace where one spends a considerable amount of time during the day. Not being able to work in an ‘alien’ country restricts most opportunities for these women to blend into their environment. This coupled with physical (and time-zone) distance from their friends and family (in their home countries) makes them increasingly isolated. While the husbands make new friends at work, their spouses have to turn to Facebook and mobile phones to retain some semblance of a social life. A point to be stressed is that this isolation continues for a considerably long period of time that can be anywhere between 2-8 years!
These women who had promising careers earlier could question the existing gender norms by insisting on their spouses’ contribution in domestic work. However, here in the US, thanks to the structural inequality already existing in the system, they get restricted to the home without an employment opportunity. Since, she is the one who has ‘free’ time; the onus of household work comes on her. (As to why women’s work in the domestic domain is not rewarded financially is an entirely different debate.)
Needless to say these women suffer high levels of emotional distress due to the combination of the factors mentioned above. This emotional vulnerability remains even in the comparatively healthier relationships where their spouses try to be empathic towards them. However, it gets compounded many times in abusive (physical/ verbal/ emotional) marriages.
From the lens of the macro society:
These individuals can productively contribute to the economy in many ways. They can use their skills to add value to the current economy. While some may chip in as professionals others may start their own enterprises. Being economically independent would also mean that she would be actively engaged in both the production and consumption side of the economy. She would be a more confident consumer of products and services, hence giving an impetus to business growth.
From the point of view of taxation, the government would get enhanced tax revenue in many ways. The obvious and more substantial portion of it would be in the form of income taxes paid by them. Secondly, the tax concessions extended to the principal H1 holders (with dependant spouses) would no longer be applicable. Lastly, there would be an increase in indirect taxes from higher purchases (due to enhanced disposable incomes).
From a cultural perspective, there are equally important reasons to integrate these women into their societal context. American society boasts of a unique multi-cultural identity that provides the right socio-economic incentives to attract some of the brightest people in the world. However, cultural inclusion is under threat in the wake of the current economic crisis. Popular media is replete with stories of how countless American jobs are being lost through the H1B program. The ‘reality’ created by the media feeds on the already existing insecurities owing to the economic downturn. The H visa issue arouses such an emotional response that a rational democratic discourse has become increasingly difficult. The actual annual cap of 65,000 H1B visas (plus an additional 20,000 for those with a US Masters degree) is totally lost amidst this hysteria that tries to project that millions of jobs are lost owing to the H1B program. The fact that highly skilled people are actually an asset to the economy is totally ignored.
As a summary, lets come back to the original premise of the article. In a globally connected world, where H visas are a reality in the American context, is it reasonable for thousands of educated women to remain socially and economically ineffective for years on end?
For the reasons above the H4 Visas’ law needs to change.