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How the United States H4 Visa Traps Foreign Workers’ Family Members in a ‘Golden Cage’

Stack of paperwork for US immigration. Image from Flickr by Stephanie Pakrul. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Stack of paperwork for US immigration. Image from Flickr by Stephanie Pakrul. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It has been dubbed the “golden cage”, “depression visa” and “prisoner visa” in various reports and comments. The United States’ H4 visa allows immediate family members of those awarded an “H” visa for temporary work to reside in the US, but not much else. 

Holders of this visa cannot obtain a Social Security number, the de facto national identification number for taxation, job applications and other tracking purposes. By contrast, dependents of another temporary work visa, the L1, are allowed to work in the US after obtaining employment authorization from the United States Immigration Service.

Many of the spouses of “H” visa holders are mostly women and are professionals with valuable skills to contribute to the workforce. But they cannot get a job in the US, work remotely for a company back home or even freelance, according to the terms of the H4 visa. So H4 visa holders resort to continuing education, limited volunteering or illegal freelance work, a minimal use of their skills.

A recent petition started by Shah Peerally, a lawyer in California, demands that the US government allow them more rights.

A Facebook page titled “H4 visa, a curse” has close to 5,000 likes. An associated blog details experiences of H4 visa holders and highlights the depression, frustration and sometimes familial abuse attached to a visa that restricts employment, especially for immigrants who have no social support system in a new country. For instance, Shilpa – Future entrepreneur writes:

I have masters degree and 3 year of work experience from my home country, all in waste. By the time I will get my work permit I will be 45 year old and there will be more than 10 year of career gap in my resume. Which employer will like to hire with this huge career gap. 2) To live in America and afford the daily expense with kids is very hard and that is why we are not able to buy a house. 3) H4 visa woman are abused, one of my friends Mother was abused very badly. All because she did not have any identity card, no money, nowhere to go. These abuse cases go unreported because h4 dependents don’t have an identity.

Elsewhere on the Internet, Jaspreet, in an open letter to President Obama, writes:

We were both from top institutes back in India, there was a time when I had a great career , making more money than my husband, but I came to the US to support my husband's career

ppl who have been here since there education and paid taxes for yrs are the ones most affected. The sad part is, even if you grant us a small favor and authorize work, what will the wives do after a gap of 7 yrs in their career?

Geetha Krishnan, a chemical engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area, tweets:

A study of immigrant entrepreneurs in the US, commissioned by the National Venture Capital Association, found that in recent years immigrants started one-third of US venture-backed companies that became publicly traded. 

Recognizing the value that immigrants bring to the culture and economy, President Barack Obama's administration announced  on May 7, 2014, proposals to allow a subset of H4 visa holders to work in the US. The number of qualified candidates is around 100,000 at the current time. 

The rationale for this was explained by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker: “These individuals are American families in waiting. Many tire of waiting for green cards and leave the country to work for our competition. The fact is we have to do more to retain and attract world-class talent to the United States, and these regulations put us on a path to do that.”

As with any immigration reform, the proposal has been greeted by a mixture of fear and triumph. Interested individuals have posted positive and negative comments on Regulations.gov, a website that allows the public to track and comment on federal rulemaking. It received 12,922 comments before the commenting period was closed on July 11.

Cecilia Curtis vocalizes the worry of many Americans vis a vis immigration reform:

This proposed rule change does NOT help American workers who are indeed skilled and unable to find work. Why does this Administration continue to put up roadblocks to hurt the American worker? Further, why does this Administration continue to bypass congress when it comes to immigration? There are way too many immigrants (legal and illegal) here in the US now. Our country cannot continue to absorb these excess workers/people. This is such a bad idea.

Vivek Pandey, however, disagrees that the law will divert jobs from citizens:

My wife has years of very high quality work experience and can easily find employment were this rule in effect. Please bear in mind that this rule does not in any way promote the ‘low cost’ worker rhetoric that has become rampant. The kind of job that my wife and many other spouses on H4 visa compete for require a very high level of expertise and experience.

Meanwhile, the production company of an immigration attorney in California, Shah Peerally Productions, is working on a movie to educate the general public about the trauma associated with the H4 visa:

It remains to be seen how long it takes for the work permits to be issued to dependent visa holders. This proposal is a step toward in fixing a system which handicaps qualified spouses of qualified workers, hailed with relief by many prisoners of the “golden cage”.

119 comments

  • […] most basic right to freedom – which is why the H-4 is so often dubbed the ‘prisoner visa’. As Global Voices notes, “Holders of this visa cannot obtain a Social Security number, the de facto national […]

  • K J

    Why such highly educated women leave aside their high paying lucrative career in home country and become ready to move to US on H4? It’s their own decision and now cursing US government for these visa norms and policies is just typical indian hypocrisy. Most of these indians staying in big cities curse other poor indians who come to their city for work. Now when they face such issues abroad they are making it big issue.

    • ollieallears

      Ever heard of ‘marriage vows’ ?
      And not all H-4 visa holders originate from India. I am from Europe.
      If a husband is offered a job in the US – because he is needed – and immigrates LEGALLY, both partners should be allowed to build a life here.

      This country allows in One Million permanent immigrants every year. And about 500,000 temporary immigrants for work/study/internships/spouses, who have permission to work.

      And the whole of the U.S. economy will break down if anther 50,000 women are added seeking for jobs ? The idea is utterly ridiculous. But because most Users – and its government has this idea – those 50,000 lives are ruined.

  • The rule is finally out – H4 EAD https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BS8GZC1CQY

  • The law is finally here check http://www.h4toead.com

  • The law is passed and as from May 26, 2015 – some H4 Visa holders will actually be permitted to apply for the H4 work authorization. To apply check http://www.h4toead.com

  • Indus

    The spouses who are campaigning for H4 visa work permit are oddly 99% female. You won’t find many male spouses on H4 visa. Men don’t want to live here on H4 visa, so if their wives are on H1b visa the husbands do not accompany them and many women who chose to come here on H1b visa leave when they get married. So why not women decide the same way a man decides, that is not to accompany a husband on H1b visa knowing well that H4 visa has no work permit. Apparently H1b is a temp visa.

    The best thing for USA to do is to eliminate the H4 spouse visa. H1b is the most abused visa by body shopping consulting companies. Also 75% of H1b goes to Indian males. Giving work status to H4 spouses of H1b employees of body shopping companies will further attract many fake degree holders to US.

  • Mysterious

    well i think it’s a good decision to grant work permission to H4 visa dependents since everyone should have rights to work..Though the fear of Americans that it would steal more chances from them by Immigrants is also right as many Immigrants prefer their own natives for jobs rather than give it to the deserved. But why H4 visa holder should be punished and also the Americans are also responsible for not getting employment as they drop out off college.

  • Kumar Sreenivas Pandruvada

    https://www.facebook.com/H1BIIBCB
    I wrote everything here about my journey of life from India to America etc.

  • Kumar Sreenivas Pandruvada

    Hope H4 EAD may ease the issues.

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