By Victoria Gentry • February 05, 2018•Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
Sunlight is beaming through my office windows, a miraculous reprieve from the single-digit temperatures that are holding court outside. Eager to stay in the beam of sunlight, I flip open the new file on my desk. Immigration paperwork, resumé, passports, marriage certificate. The usual. My eye snags on the marriage certificate, which displays a color photo of the bride and groom. The bride is resplendent is crimson and gold. Her long sable hair falls so long that it continues out of the frame. The groom looks like his having a hard time sitting still. He has one shoulder wedged behind his bride caringly. Their marriage date was two months before they arrived in the U.S. Since then, the couple has moved to the U.S. for the husband’s job in the IT industry. Based on her visa category as a spouse of an H-1B visa holder, she is not lawfully permitted to work.
In the world of corporate immigration, most of the beneficiaries (foreign workers who are sponsored by companies to work in the U.S.) are men. In our practice, approximately 80% are men. Of those who are married, 99% are married to women. Most of these women are highly-educated professionals in the fields of medicine, law, business, health, engineering, and IT. They have climbed the corporate ranks in their home countries, sometimes even exceeding the professional status of their husbands. As I look at their beautiful, strong, confident faces emblazoned on their passports, I want to ask them what made them come to the U.S. for their husbands’ careers. Economic opportunity? Education for their children? Adventure? Filial duty?
Some employment-based visa categories, such as L-1 and E-2, allow spouses to work after they arrive in the U.S. Many, however, do not. This leaves spouses of TN and H-1B visa holders unable to lawfully work and, therefore, stranded in a new country with their husband working outside the home. When I discuss their immigration path with my male clients, many of them express how it is imperative that their wives be able to work. If our firm is considering adjusting them from one visa category to another, we are quick to take into account whether we should proceed based on the spouse’s ability to work. In the end, however, the long-term visa strategy usually prevails, employment consequences for spouses be damned.
Recently, I came across a Facebook page called “H-4 visa, a curse”. This is a community for spouses of H-1B visa holders, known as H-4 visa holders, to discuss the realities of moving to the U.S. for their spouses’ careers. The cover photo is the outline of a woman in a gilded bird’s cage. She is holding her head in her hands. The words next to the image read, “No Work Permit. No SSN. Wastage of Skills. Financial Dependence. No Protection of the Laws [sic]. Loneliness. Long Wait.” The page has more than 20,000 followers. Many of the comments express anger, sadness, and confusion.
When a male client and his family receive their green cards, one of the first questions they ask is, “Can my wife work now?”. I want to eagerly type, “YES!!!”. Over the years, I have counseled women with professional degrees who were ready to relaunch their careers, armed with their green cards in hand. Some of the “easier” paths, I have learned, involve careers in engineering, IT, and pharmacy. For other professions, the transition is much more difficult. Especially in the fields of midwifery/doulaing, medicine, and law. Although we communicate mostly via email, it is almost as if I can see their faces fall when I list for them the treatise of requirements for foreign attorneys who want to practice law in the U.S. It is no wonder that the task seems insurmountable. When we touch base a few months later, many of them are employed as bank tellers or receptionists.
When I am not wearing my lawyer hat, I lay in bed at night and wonder how these decisions have affected the lives and marriages of my clients. I think of the role depression plays. Of how mind-numbingly isolating it must be to be taken from a warm, crowded high-rise in Mumbai to a cookie-cutter saltbox house in the suburbs. I wonder how many women have seriously considered leaving. Both the U.S. and their husbands. I wonder how many actually have left.
“What makes you stay?” I want to ask. This is only one of hundreds of questions I have. But the biggest question I ask myself on my clients’ behalf is, “What do you need from me in your life right now?”. Luckily, the answer for that is always simple. Solid, well-considered legal advice and compassion. It has to be those two things. Never more, never less. At the end of the day, it is my job to arm them with as much relevant knowledge as possible so that they can make the best decision for their lives. And I can honestly say that is a privilege.