| No job, only wait
Some rooms are empty, most walls are bare, but the mantel in Hanuma Samavedam’s new home seems conspicuously crowded. There, amid family photos and knick-knacks from her native India, sit the academic medals and trophies she racked up in a previous life.
She turns to them often to remember what it was to feel proud, purposeful, independent.
She arrived in the US in 2001, riding the coat-tails of her husband’s H-1B visa, a guest-worker programme for highly skilled professionals like him ' not that Samavedam wasn’t. In India, she earned an MBA and worked as a finance manager at an accounting firm.
But once she married, US immigration policy put her in a different category: dependant.
For thousands of women like her, the word defines more than visa status. It defines them.
“When I came here, everyone said with my qualifications, I would get a job,” Samavedam said.
“I had a very good impression of America, that there are equal rights for women.... It’s not that I feel lonely. I feel unnecessary.”
While spouses of diplomats and business executives can legally work in the US, those married to computer programmers and software engineers ' the job descriptions most often associated with the H-1B visas ' cannot.
According to the state department, nearly half a million such visas have been issued in the past four years, while about 3,00,000 visas have been issued for their dependants.
“Having a trailing spouse in today’s day and age is not dealt with,” said immigration lawyer Elizabeth Espin Stern of Baker & McKenzie LLP. “We’ve neglected these individuals and their families. It is an arrogant stance and an insensitive one.”
Since the mid-1990s, as the tech industry successfully lobbied Congress to increase the number of professional visas, hundreds of thousands of guest workers have entered the US, mostly young men from India and China. In what has become an almost formulaic journey in the US, the workers tend to arrive single and return to their homelands to marry, bringing their wives back on the H-4 visa issued to dependants.
In Samavedam’s case -- in which her horoscope and that of Raghu Donepudi were matched, their family backgrounds compared, and their personalities deemed compatible -- immigration status never entered discussions.
“That topic never came up. He said he had an active life, that he played golf, cricket,” said Samavedam. “When I told him about my life in India, he said here it would also be the same.”
Instead, she discovered a world initially confined to their Stamford, Connecticut, apartment. As Donepudi left at 7 am, Samavedam tried to stay asleep so she wouldn’t have to face a day “sitting idle”, as she describes it.
She rattled off how she kept busy: CNN, an afternoon nap, elaborate homemade meals, several immigration Web sites.
Nearly five years later, she lives in a spacious house, but the routines remain the same. The recent birth of a son, Madhav, helped break the monotony, but Samavedam said her desire to work remains strong. She said she dreams of having her own money and of juggling day care drop-offs with morning meetings.
“Her career has already vegetated for four years,” said Donepudi, whose application for a green card is among a backlog of 300,000 cases in the labour department. “We’re living 50 per cent of our full potential.”
Some dependant spouses have been able to find employers to sponsor H-1B visas for them. Those work visas allow holders to stay in the country for up to six years, at which point they must return home or have their employers file green card applications.
Once they have received green cards, workers and their families can live and work in the US freely, but getting a green card can take years.
Advocates of more restrictive immigration laws say extending work authorisation to dependants would take jobs away from Americans.
Lawyer and immigrant advocate Shivali Shah, who surveyed 70 H-4 visa holders, found that all but one of them would work if they could. And dozens of interviews with respondents revealed high rates of depression, isolation and loneliness.
Some women work illegally, while others fill their time on Web sites. There is even a Yahoo group for dependant spouses in Dallas.
To combat the silence of suburbia that seemed so at odds with the bustling, crowded India she left, Bindu Reddy went to the library and volunteered at a school when she arrived in the US. Sometimes the former special-education teacher browsed job listings on the Internet, knowing that few schools would sponsor her work permit.
She says she still wonders what would have happened if she had not immigrated. She probably would have opened her own school by now. Her house would probably dwarf the two-bedroom apartment she calls home.
Mostly via e-mail, Hanuma Samavedam keeps up with news of former colleagues and the various job opportunities they are finding in India. Some have been promoted two, even three, times since she left.
She acknowledged the education her son will get in the US and the job opportunities for her husband. But she wondered aloud whether her sacrifice is worth it.
“I became a housewife here, but my mind wants to work,” she said. “If I get a job today, I will like this country, too.”
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service