On the evening of Feb. 22, 2017, Sunayana Dumala heard a knock on the door of her home in Olathe, Kansas, that would change her life.
Two police officers entered her house to break the news that her husband, Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, had been shot dead. Dumala lost her soulmate, friend and confidant to a suspected hate crime.
But in addition to her psychological turmoil, Dumala had another reality to contend with: She had just lost the one person whose life tied her to the United States.
At the time of Kuchibhotla’s death, Dumala held an H-4 visa, which is given to spouses of high-skilled foreign workers. Since Dumala’s H-4 visa was dependent on her husband’s H-1B, his death immediately threw her own immigration status into question.
“It’s like being in hell,” Dumala told HuffPost about the months that followed her husband’s death. “It’s so stressful. I was dealing with two things, trying to move ahead without Srinu being on my side. To do that, my status has to be stable, so I was also fighting for that.”
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With the help of her congressman and other supporters, Dumala was eventually able to get her own H-1B visa. But not everyone has that kind of access to people who can help.
Dumala’s story highlights the uncertainty faced by thousands of other Indian women in the U.S. Ninety percent of adult H-4 visa admissions are women, according to The Guardian. State Department data suggests that in fiscal year 2017 alone, 86 percent of H-4 visas were issued to Indian nationals. Most H-4 wives are generally prohibited from working or obtaining a Social Security number which in turn makes it more complicated to open a bank account or get a driver’s license.
These Indian women received a boon in 2015, when the Obama administration allowed H-4 visa holders whose spouses were already in the process of becoming permanent residents to apply for a temporary employment authorization document, known as the H-4 EAD. Over 100,000 H-4 visa holders have received work permits through this program.
But in line with President Donald Trump’s “America-First” philosophy, the White House has promised to crack down on the H-1B visa program, which critics say has been abused in order to displace American-born workers. In conjunction with that push, the Trump administration is also seeking to reverse the Obama-era policy allowing H-4 spouses to work.
The Department of Homeland Security is currently putting final touches on a proposal to rescind the H-4 EAD program. The rule is expected to be published in June, after which it will go through a series of reviews and clearances that could take months, according to Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School.
While they wait to hear what comes of this new proposal, these H-4 spouses have become increasingly worried about whether there is a place for them in this country.
Many Indian H-4 wives arrive in America as newlyweds. Within a matter of months, these highly educated, cosmopolitan women go from working respectable jobs in India, surrounded by their family, friends, and domestic help, to being isolated inside their suburban American homes.
For some Indian women, this enforced break is an opportunity to discover new hobbies or concentrate on the hard work of raising children. But others say they end up feeling a loss of control over their own lives ― whether it’s depending on their husbands for menial tasks, like grocery shopping, or being anxious about how they would provide for their families if their partners ever got sick.
In addition, it may take years for these women to see any substantial change in their immigration statuses. No more than 7 percent of employment-based green cards can be given to natives of any one country. With India’s booming population and the high number of Indians arriving in America on employment-based visas, Indian nationals face much longer waits for a green card than those coming from other countries. A study from the National Foundation for American Policy suggests that at the current rate, Indian nationals could wait over 20 years for their green cards. For H-4 wives, that could mean decades of waiting in limbo.
Lawmakers and activists have come up with a number of proposed solutions for the challenges facing H-4 wives. Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mia Love (R-Utah) are urging the DHS to maintain the current rule granting work authorization to certain H-4 spouses. In a letter signed by 130 bipartisan members of Congress, the politicians insist that giving H-4 spouses the opportunity to work helps both the economy and the women’s children ― many of whom are current or future U.S. citizens.
Other advocates, like Dumala and her congressman Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), have their eyes set on something bigger. Yoder is sponsoring a bill that would eliminate the per-country caps that have caused green card backlogs for Indians.
Dumala told HuffPost that while the H-4 EAD program is important, it’s not a permanent solution. She believes Yoder’s bill gets to the root of the problem.
“After having seen the worst, I cannot lead others towards a short-term solution,” she said. “Having a H-4 EAD will give us job security, but will it give us life security if an unexpected tragedy knocks on our door?”
As their futures hang in the balance, many of America’s H-4 wives have not been content to continue to live in limbo. Numerous Facebook groups connecting these women have sprouted up online. Like Dumala, many have gotten involved in advocacy and have been sharing their stories.
Below, HuffPost has gathered together the accounts of five women who are in the U.S. on the H-4 visa. In interviews, these women painted portraits of their lives ― how they fell in love, how they decided to come to the U.S. and the dreams they have for themselves and for their children. All of these women are also recipients of the H-4 EAD, which means they’ve tasted the freedom that comes with having the ability to work and are fearful of what could happen if the program is rescinded.
Having an H-4 EAD also means these women are citizens in waiting. Often, they are already the mothers of American citizens.
Read on to learn about these women’s lives as they fight for a chance to achieve their American dreams.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
“I always thought of myself as a feminist ... I don’t feel like a feminist in this situation.”
— Karunya Rao, Stamford, Connecticut
If you’re 25 and a single girl in India, alarm bells start ringing everywhere. I was initially extremely skeptical about this whole concept of arranged marriage. But when I met my now-husband, it was completely different. He had a very progressive state of mind. I really liked everything about him. I did not expect to find love in such a method, so I didn’t want to let go of it.
He had moved to the U.S. for his master’s. He had been with the same employer for years and was very happy. I was initially not keen on coming to the U.S. But I happened to like the boy and I found out that there was a chance that I could work, thanks to a new rule by the Obama administration. So I took my chances.
I probably would have had second thoughts if I knew what was to come. It’s hard to go back now and say that, I don’t want to think like that. But this sheer idea of having this possibility of an EAD is what drove me. My priorities were more about sticking to a person that you like, versus being adamant about the place where you stay.
We got married in June 2015 and moved here soon afterwards. We lived in Manhattan first. It was initially exciting, but later, I went into this shell. It’s so easy to isolate yourself in a dark apartment, in a country where you barely know anybody.
If I just walked into a Dunkin’ Donuts, I would be at a loss for words. In India, I worked in corporate training, helping new hires in various companies in Bangalore become more confident speaking English. Here, I would make grammatical errors. Just think what that could do for a person’s self-confidence.
We eventually moved out of the city to Stamford. I got my EAD in December 2016, but I haven’t found a job yet. I am a living example of why it’s not a privilege to have an EAD. I got a few interviews for marketing positions that I couldn’t take up because I don’t drive. I had plans of starting an online art shop but then came the news of the possible H-4 EAD revocation. The stress and uncertainty is enough to make one’s creative mind shut down completely.
I always thought of myself as a feminist. I was always standing up for all my women friends who had to take unfair injustices in their families. But imagine coming here and not being able to do anything yourself, not being able to actually have equality in marriage in the truest sense because I don’t work. I feel like I can’t talk in a social gathering about today’s feminism. I don’t feel like a feminist in this situation, that’s the problem.
“I felt that I was being caged inside my home.”
— Priyadarshini Chandrasekaran, Seattle, Washington
My husband and I had an arranged marriage. I didn’t know much about the person I was marrying, except that he worked for Microsoft and that his parents lived in the same city as mine. My mom had brought up a lot of proposals for me and I did speak to a couple of them. What struck me about my now-husband was that he was completely supportive of me taking care of my mom financially in the future. I was completely thrown aback by that and I thought that this is the guy I want to be with, who can treat me right and equal. We met in a restaurant in February 2010, said yes to each other the same evening, and got married in June 2010. I came to the U.S. a few days later.
I knew when I came that I wouldn’t be able to work immediately, but I was hoping I’d be able to work after two to three years. The first few months were great, but after some time, I just felt useless. I felt that I was being caged inside my home. I don’t think I actually understood what I was signing up for.
My husband used to go to work in the morning and come back late, while I would look at the four walls of my home. I would get up, do chores, call my mom. My husband’s friends would be my friends. It took a long time for me to make friends of my own, to feel like I’m somebody here, that I had a friend.
When I heard about the H-4 EAD, I felt so happy. It was like a dream come true. After I got a job, we were able to buy a home and I’m able to contribute to the mortgage. There’s a little free cash flow in the house. I’m sending my kid to swim classes and enrolled him for tae kwon do. We got a nanny. All I needed was the opportunity to be interviewed, to go to work, to do something I like and that I’m passionate about.
My husband will eventually be a citizen and I will eventually be a citizen. If you’re going to have me stay home, I’m not going to be useful to the family or the community. I feel like my independence is being cut off by hearing this news that I may not be able to work.
Overall, it’s the women who are going to be at a big loss. What are these women going to do? Are we really a society that is going to cause trouble to so many women? I’m sure that will also indirectly affect families and kids. You’re going to be all day home, looking at four walls while the kids are at school. What would you do with those eight, nine hours?
“There’s no stability, even though we are doing everything right.”
— Poonam Gangawane Ghelani, Waldwick, New Jersey
I had a wonderful picture of life in the U.S. I thought we would have a better life. We didn’t have any plans to settle over here in the beginning. We wanted to study, get some experience and go back to India. Once you come over here, you start working, study, get married, your children are born here, then you slowly start to think about settling in the country that we have heavily invested in.
I come from a family where boys and girls are raised as equals. I always wanted to have a career like my husband’s. He has more stability because he’s been with a single employer so long that the employer has filed for a green card. That’s not the case with me. I got consulting roles and I don’t get full-time benefits that other employees get. There’s a discrepancy between his career and my career, even though we put in a similar amount of effort.
My husband never made me feel bad, but I feel like I should have that monetary power. I should have that confidence you get when you’re earning, when you’re in society, when you have your colleagues outside of home that you talk to about your field of interest. That gives you happiness that can’t be fathomed. And losing that happiness, it will just put you in a depression.
It’s just a waste sitting at home and not contributing to the economy. I don’t think stay-at-home moms are not important. The toughest job is a stay-at-home mom. But when you’re qualified, you want something else from your life, you want some more freedom, some independence, some decision-making power. Who doesn’t want that?
After hearing about the threat to the H-4 EAD, I have had many sleepless nights thinking about alternatives. We have jobs, kids, a social life, everything, and apart from that this thing is always at the top of our minds. Our lives are depending on these political changes. There’s no stability, even though we are doing everything right. We are legal. There is not a single day that we have been illegally staying in this country. We have been paying our taxes, doing everything right by the book. Why are we being punished for this?
“My intention is not to make money — I just don’t want to rot.”
— Anupama Krishnamurthy, West Norriton, Pennsylvania
When you don’t have a car and you stay at home all day long, no family, no friends, just you and the screen connecting you to the world, you get so depressed and lonely.
I lost my self-esteem and my-self respect fell to ground zero. I felt like I was forgetting how to speak in English. Because if you don’t often to speak to other people, if you don’t interact socially and professionally, you start stuttering your own words. You get panic attacks about whether you are speaking right or wrong. You become an introvert even though I’m not an introvert at all.
After I had a kid, I didn’t want him to go through what I went through. Putting him on child care was hard on us financially, but very necessary for my mental peace and his growth. If I didn’t put him in child care, he wouldn’t pick up the accent and because of his skin color, he would feel that he’s not an American. I want him to grow up as American and not feel aloft from the community.
I literally cried when I got my EAD. I felt that I had gotten a freedom card. My intention is not to make money ― I just don’t want to rot. I eventually got a job in the field that I studied for. It’s indescribable ― the confidence, the self-respect you have.
When we heard that the EAD could be revoked, we canceled our plan of buying a home and now we’re thinking about what we can do. We can’t live in this uncertainty forever. The stress eats you up so that you’re not normal anymore. It’s like we are living a nightmare every day.
You leave your fruitful career behind and come here for an American dream, for something better. But it’s not better. Everyone expects to grow, not to be pulled back. We’re not asking too much. Let us work, let us contribute to society, to ourselves, so that we have some self-respect when we look at ourselves in the mirror.
America is a land of immigrants; it’s made out of immigrants. We have been contributing, not just Indians, but all immigrants, have been contributing for themselves and for the country. It’s just because of our broken system that we are stuck in line and treated unfairly.
“I think the most devastating effect was on my confidence.”
— Molika Gupta, Sterling Heights, Michigan
I came to the U.S. as the wife of student, then became a student myself. In 2015, the company I was working with filed my H-1B, but it was not picked up in the lottery. I had no option but to convert my visa status to H-4.
Before I changed to the H-4, I was constantly on my toes, studying, working, pursuing my passion, meeting people. I went from attending meetings on Monday mornings while I was working, to watching Netflix on Monday morning the next week. During the two years that followed, it was a period of all the emotions a person can go through, from depression to loneliness to questioning your self-worth. It was a dark period of my life and my career.
I think the most devastating effect was on my confidence. Even if you have a supportive spouse, it’s about the basic decision-making power, a sense of freedom. I would say it took me a good year to really embrace the fact that I cannot work and after that, I just wanted to understand what else I can utilize my life for.
That’s when I decided to pursue my passion of writing and building a community of immigrant spouses who are in a similar situation like me. I started a Facebook group [Immigrant Spouses ReWrite Your Story]. The biggest goal was to connect to other spouses, men or women, who are on different journeys with different visa categories, to know how they’re pursuing their skills, how they’re waking up every day and putting a smile on their faces.
After the EAD, I felt like I can visualize my future again. All the EAD does is give you the eligibility to apply. We are competing with the same highly skilled competent workforce. Right now, I’m working as a freelance professional and I’m looking for full-time opportunities. There’s still a gap in my resume that has posed questions and it’s difficult to make employers understand why these gaps are there. It’s still very difficult to find a position even after the H-4 EAD.
If the EAD is revoked, I’m clueless about what I’m going to do. The thought of leaving this place I call home shatters me to the core.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Molika Gupta came to the U.S. as a student. She came as the wife of a student. The story has also been corrected to clarify who is eligible for an H-4 EAD.