The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Spouses of high-skilled immigrants aren’t allowed to work. That’s finally changing.

The header image for a Facebook group for H-4 visa holders. (Sonal Gadre)
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Roxana Rohde hates the look people give her when she goes out in San Francisco with her husband, someone asks where she works, and she doesn't have an answer.

"'Ah, you are this kind of woman; you don't want to work,'" Rohde paraphrases their thoughts. Then, she has to explain that her visa doesn't allow her to get a job, and the patronizing starts. "'You have a dog, right? You have so much time! You could have a child...'" Rohde mimics again, with exasperation. "I would like to be able to decide on my own when to have a child!" Lately she's just started telling people she works at home, just to avoid the conversation.

"I'm really tired of explaining this visa to people," moans Rohde, who is 31. "It's really hard and frustrating, because I'm a smart woman!" It's true -- she has degrees in computer science and math and worked for three years in her native Romania before Tesla sponsored her husband's H1-b visa to come work in the United States in November 2012. But  the visa she can get as a dependent, the H-4, doesn't allow her to get a work permit until her spouse gets a green card. That's taken a toll on her marriage.

"I was even jealous of my husband, because he was working and I was not," Rohde says. "I went from being an independent woman, with my own money, time and schedule and friends, to becoming completely dependent. I cannot even buy a pair of underwear without my husband knowing it."

That situation may be changing soon for Rohde: Earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would be publishing a rule to allow spouses of H1-b visa holders to work in the United States, affecting 97,000 people in the first year, and 30,000 per year after that. It's one of a few small changes in immigration policy the White House can make on its own while comprehensive reform languishes in Congress; the measure had been included in the Senate reform bill that passed last year, but was stymied in the House.

The tech companies that have been lobbying hard for more visas for high-skilled workers cheered the change, which they say will both help attract and retain more foreign talent, as well as make use of their highly educated spouses. But it's still not a perfect fix, says Susan Cohen, chair of the immigration law practice at Mintz Levin. H-4 holders can only apply for a work permit after their spouses have applied for a green card, which companies don't always sponsor for their employees, and which could take years to get started in any case.

"It would be better if it were someday extended further, so it's not just people who are far along in the process," says Cohen. "It's shortsighted from a policy perspective, based on wanting to attract the best and the brightest in the U.S."

The delay could matter: In fast-moving technology fields, a hiatus in employment can hurt a worker's prospects. That's what Lekshmy Puranik is worried about. She's a procurement manager who moved from Bangalore, India, to Santa Clara, Calif., two years ago, because her husband works for Oracle. The computer company has sponsored her husband's application for a green card. But even if Puranik got a work permit today, finding a job could prove challenging.

"Nobody is going to give you any good positions, even if my résumé is good," Puranik says. "I have three years' experience, but it's no good, because now I have two years' gap."

In the meantime, H-4 holders -- who are predominantly women, since H1-b holders skew heavily male -- are allowed to go to school, but tuition is often difficult to afford on one income. So instead, many volunteer, which at least helps them to feel a sense of self-worth. "This keeps me sane, because sometimes I have the feeling that my brain is not working anymore," Rohde says. "I'm being appreciated for my skills and my involvement, and it makes me feel great."

They also seek solace in solidarity. Thousands of H1-b wives have found each other through Meetup and Facebook groups, including a very active one called "H4 Visa, a Curse," which has an accompanying blog. Its proprietor, a lifestyle journalist named Rashi Bhatnagar, has followed her husband through assignments in Dallas, Portland, Milwaukee and Minneapolis for the IT services company Cognizant. She says she's seen instances of domestic abuse made worse by the inequality inherent in relationships where one partner isn't allowed to contribute financially.

And that's not just a few anecdotes. Pallavi Banerjee, a post-doctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University, studied the effects of visa policy on the domestic affairs of high-skilled immigrants from India -- the largest national group -- and found they often regressed to the traditional model of dominant husbands and subservient wives. She worries that the change by DHS won't do enough to fix that problem, when spouses also don't have social security numbers and can't get drivers licenses.

"These contribute to creating a type of dependence that goes beyond just not being able to work," Banerjee says. "These issues need to addressed, as well. Denial of identity by the state can in some cases be psychologically debilitating, causing many of these families to return" to their home countries.

When she finally gets her work permit, Rohde said, she wants to help ease the pain for other H-4 holders by starting a consulting firm that will employ as many of them as possible -- even if it requires a lot more paperwork than if she just hired American citizens.

"I guess I will need a good lawyer," she says.