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Spouses of high-skilled visa holders look forward to getting their own jobs

Posted on January 13, 2015
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Shalini Sharma loves spending time at home with her two young sons, make no mistake. She loves being able to cheer on her youngest as he learns to ride a scooter, and helping her eldest with his homework.

But she really misses her work.

“I am an architect,” said Sharma, who arrived in the U.S. almost six years ago. “I was a professional architect in India, and I was an interior designer. I had my own practice.”

Sharma isn’t your typical stay-at-home mom who traded career for kids. She’s in the United States on what’s called an H-4 visa, a visa granted to dependents of H-1B high-skilled work visa holders, more than two-thirds of whom are men.

These dependent spouses, many of them from South Asia, aren’t authorized to work in the U.S. But in many cases, they are as well-educated and skilled as their partners.

At first, Sharma stayed home by choice.

“I was all fine with not working, because I wanted to give some time to my kids and stay with them and just be with my family, the four of us together,” she said.

That was almost six years ago, when she first arrived in the U.S. with her husband, Vishal, on his work visa. But their lives have changed, and she’s eager to get back to the workplace.

In the coming year, she might: Sharma is one of an estimated 100,000 spouses of high-skilled work visa holders who could soon be allowed to work as part of President Obama’s new immigration plan.

Those who will qualify are H-4 holders whose spouses have applied for permanent resident status, or for a work visa extension.

Economics are a factor for some who are eager to put their skills to use – but so are emotional reasons.

Because of her status, Sharma can’t do so much as order cable service without her husband’s involvement. She can’t have a credit card – she can only use his. She finds the entire thing humiliating.

“It really hurts when you were an independent woman, and you choose to stay home for your family,” she said, “but then…you need authorization from your husband because you don’t have a Social Security number.”

Manju Kulkarni, director of the South Asian Network in Artesia, says the change has been a long time coming.

“We really saw the problem with H-4 visa holders exacerbate in the last 10 years because more and more spouses were coming to the United States and unable to work, and unable to use their expertise and their skills,” Kulkarni said. “And so a number of advocates raised this with the administration, and with folks in Congress during the discussions around immigration reform.”

Proposed federal regulations to ease the work ban for H-4 visa holders were introduced last year, and eventually folded into executive action.

Not working wasn’t a big deal for Sharma at first. She and her husband thought they might stay short term. But, as it does, life happened: The toddler they brought with them started school – he’s 10 now. A second son was born – he starts kindergarten in the fall.

“They started liking it here,” Sharma said. “The school is good, the surroundings are good, and we all were happy here. But then now, I want to work. I can work, because my kids are old enough.”

A couple of years ago, they bought a house – all on her husband’s income. Vishal Sharma has a good tech industry job as a chip designer, but he also wishes his wife could work.

“Everything is dependent on one visa, which is dependent on one job,” he said. “So if that job is under question, then all of our existence here is under question.”

There’s another economic down side to these dependent spouses being unable to work, immigrant advocates say: For those in abusive marriages, it’s difficult to escape without a means of self-support.

“They feel that both because of their immigrant status and their inability to work, that they are trapped in relationships with their batterers,” said Kulkarni, whose group has assisted several women in this situation.

Kulkarni said that as the White House immigration plan rolls out, H-4 visa holders who qualify could get permission to work in the next several months.

Some dependent spouses have gone out of their way to seek other kinds of visas in order to feel productive.

Vandana Suresh had just earned a master’s degree in physics when she arrived with her husband from India in 2005, as a dependent on his student visa. He eventually got a work visa and a job – but she couldn’t get one.

After some time feeling like a frustrated housewife, Suresh started applying to Ph.D. programs. She finally landed a neuroscience spot at USC in 2009 – and a student visa that lets her work in a lab on campus. While she earns only a modest stipend, for her, it’s a big deal.

“It gives me a sense of identity and accomplishment,” said Suresh, who takes the train to campus from South Pasadena. “It’s something that is my own, my own achievement. I feel much more empowered, confident, and a better mother and better wife.”

Shalini Sharma has found her own ways to channel her creativity: She designs and makes jewelry, and her paintings hang on the walls. Never much of a cook in the past, she’s taken classes and enjoys cooking meals from scratch for her family.

But she wants her professional identity back. She’s quite sure she’ll be among those who qualify to work: Her husband is seeking a green card, so they can raise their family here.

With the kids in mind, she’d like a more flexible schedule than she’d have working as an architect, so she’s exploring other options.

“So I’ve thought that I’ll be a real estate agent,” she said. “Maybe I’ll flip properties and then sell them – that’s what I have thought. I love change.”

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