Immigrant Wives' Visa Status Keeps Them Out of Workplace

Hanuma Samavedam said the birth of her son, Madhav, now nine months old, helped break the monotony of not being able to work somewhat.
Hanuma Samavedam said the birth of her son, Madhav, now nine months old, helped break the monotony of not being able to work somewhat. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 3, 2005

Some rooms are empty, most walls are bare, but the mantel in Hanuma Samavedam's new Loudoun County home seems conspicuously crowded. There, amid family photos and knickknacks from her native India, sit the academic medals and trophies she racked up in a previous life.

She turns to them often to remember what it was to feel proud, purposeful, independent.

She arrived in the United States in 2001, riding the coattails of her husband's H-1B visa, a guest-worker program for highly skilled professionals like him -- not that Samavedam wasn't. In India, she earned an MBA and worked as a finance manager at an accounting firm. But once she married, U.S. immigration policy put her in a different category: dependent.

For thousands of women like her, the word defines more than visa status. It defines them.

"When I came here, everyone said with my qualifications, I would get a job," Samavedam said. "I had a very good impression of America, that there are equal rights for women. ... It's not that I feel lonely. I feel unnecessary."

While spouses of diplomats and business executives can legally work in the United States, those married to computer programmers and software engineers -- the job descriptions most often associated with the H-1B visas -- cannot. According to the State Department, nearly half a million such visas have been issued in the past four years, while about 300,000 visas have been issued for their dependents.

"Having a trailing spouse in today's day and age is not dealt with," said immigration lawyer Elizabeth Espin Stern of Baker & McKenzie LLP. "We've neglected these individuals and their families. It is an arrogant stance and an insensitive one."

Since the mid-1990s, as the tech industry successfully lobbied Congress to increase the number of professional visas, hundreds of thousands of guest workers have entered the United States, mostly young men from India and China. In what has become an almost formulaic journey in the United States, the workers tend to arrive single and return to their homelands to marry, bringing their wives back to the United States on the H-4 visa issued to dependents.

In Samavedam's case -- in which her horoscope and that of Raghu Donepudi were matched, their family backgrounds compared, and their personalities deemed compatible after a 15-minute conversation -- immigration status never entered discussions.

"That topic never came up. He said he had an active life, that he played golf, cricket," said Samavedam, whose hair parting is streaked with red vermillion powder to show she is married. "When I told him about my life in India, he said here it would also be the same."

Instead, she discovered a world initially confined to their Stamford, Conn., apartment. As Donepudi left at 7 a.m., Samavedam tried to stay asleep so she wouldn't have to face a day "sitting idle," as she describes it. She rattled off how she kept busy: CNN, an afternoon nap, elaborate homemade meals, several immigration Web sites.

Nearly five years later, she lives in a spacious house in a South Riding development, but the routines remain the same. The recent birth of a son, Madhav, helped break the monotony, but Samavedam said her desire to work remains strong. She said she dreams of having her own money and of juggling day care drop-offs with morning meetings.

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