Imagine an accomplished young woman — we can call her Amrita — who has a caring husband and maybe a child or two. He is a highly skilled professional in his field with a doctorate or even postdoctorate qualifications. She has the same level of achievement or possibly higher. He has been offered a good job in the United States. She has not, and US regulations may prevent her from finding one when she arrives.
That’s where the trouble often starts.
In the welter of words surrounding American immigration in the Trump era, there is a little-discussed spouse issue that gets scant attention in the US media. This is not about family reunification, which Trump seems to see as a threat to America and wants to end or severely curtail. It is about the limitations placed on a spouse, usually a woman, who accompanies her husband to the US and what tragedies can follow.
India is among those countries with strong traditionally arranged marriage systems. But Indian marriages today, even when arranged, are no longer the marriages of yore, when a young woman, sometimes barely educated, is bundled off as a bride to the family of an ambitious, possibly older man from a different social environment who will sooner or later “outgrow” her.
In contemporary India, says Satarupa Gupta of Manavi, a New Jersey-based support group for women, arranged marriages are now most likely to involve a decision made by the couple, who may be about the same age and equally educated or professionally qualified. But when an American job opportunity or transfer to an international company with a US base opens, that can spell the end of equality.
Gupta tells the story of how life can spiral downward into violence for an Indian wife. The H1-B and L-1 visas, best known and most sought after among Indian professionals, allow the visa holder to bring a spouse and dependent children on an H-4 or L-2 visa that permits entry to the US but carries few or no benefits beyond that.
For a relatively brief period from 2015 to 2016, the Obama administration relaxed the rule for H-4 visa holders allowing a spouse to hold a job if she (or he) could secure an employment authorization document, or EAD. But in December 2017, the Trump anti-immigration wave led to a decision that might soon be announced, saying that a paying job would again be prohibited by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security. As has been widely reported, H1-B visa numbers may also be curtailed for all foreigners; Indians account for the largest number of those granted now.
“When she comes here on this H-4 visa and she’s a highly qualified woman who was earning this big salary back home, she may find that she cannot work,” said Gupta, a specialist in dealing with domestic abuse. “Then she’s put into an apartment or a very small house, and she doesn’t even have a Social Security card or a driving license.” Many women do volunteer work if that is an option. Others simply get isolated and trapped.
“She can’t drive; she can’t go anywhere,” Gupta said. “So she’s stuck in the house and she has to depend on her husband, even like to bring the milk — or if she has a baby, to bring the diapers. Everything is dependent on the husband. So this gives the other spouse an enormous amount of power over the life of another human being. Her passport is being kept under lock and key, so she has nothing — no identity.”
“In a lot of cases, the men take advantage of this,” she added. “This may not be in the beginning, but then he suddenly realizes he is in an all-powerful position.” She noted that domestic abuse cannot necessarily be linked to the imbalance in their lives, but that the tension that arises because of it can aggravate a troubled relationship.
“There are a lot of women’s rights organizations in India,” Gupta said, “but they are looking to the rights of women in that country. There are not a lot of organizations that can tell her what can happen if she goes to another country.” Immigration processes can be very different country to country, however. Unlike the US, numerous governments around the world are more accommodating to a spouse, woman or man, in a temporary immigrant status.
“It’s completely different in New Zealand,” Gupta said. “It’s completely different in Australia. In most of the European countries, they have some rights. But here they cannot. So what happens is that they cannot anticipate that. People don’t come to us here until they are in trouble.”
Manavi began as an organization working with women from across South Asia, who are still its central focus. But the organization does not turn away calls for help from others, such as Middle Easterners and East Asians.
It is one of several dozen help organizations or programs in the New York-New Jersey area, many of them offering multilingual services to women in immigrant communities who may not know their rights or how to seek assistance.
Among the groups are the Domestic Harmony Foundation, which supports projects to end domestic violence and exploitation in Muslim families. There is also Sakhi for South Asian Women, a widely known and respected decades-old organization offering not only services for women who have been abused or sexually assaulted but also economic empowerment programs for those who can work. For Indo-Caribbean women, there is Jahajee Sisters, which has recently borne the shock of a brutal murder on Jan. 1 of a member of its community, a 26-year-old woman with two preschool-age children who was stabbed repeatedly by her husband.
Manavi, which has been supporting women in crisis for more than 30 years, offers a panoply of services, including counseling, free legal clinics (such as how to file for divorce) and a transient safe house for women at great risk. The organization has been receiving funding from a US Department of Justice program dealing with violence against women.
“We get federal grants because we work in preventing domestic violence and sexual assault,” Gupta said. An annual gala in April raises additional funds among Indian-Americans and others in the community.
Whatever combination of factors may come together to make life difficult for a wife, including her fear of losing her children if she decides to return to India, the story seems to end the same way, Gupta said: “It is mostly women who sacrifice their careers.”
This article originally appeared in India Abroad.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.