Saturday, October 10, 2009

Public Disservice

It is not often that I read an article that irritates me quite as much as this piece of sophomoric inanity on WSJ by Meeti Shroff Shah did. She makes mockery of the legions of highly educated and qualified H4 wives who are pushed to the far end of despair and desperation by their visa status. It can be argued they all come to the country fully aware that they will not be able to work so there is nothing to complain about. They just need to stop feeling entitled to employment, shut up,suck it up and learn salsa if time hangs much too heavy on their hands.

Imagining life in a foreign country as a wife and the reality of living that life are absolutely different things – and I speak from experience when I say this. Several years ago, in a very different kind of economy, I was an H4 wife by choice for a little over six months. It was as Shroff Shah points out, a time for self-discovery and rejuvenation. I had worked without a break since the time I graduated from engineering school and felt exhausted. With marriage being a phase change in my life, I also wanted to pause a little. It ended up being a good time for me because I had options, I knew I could get back to work whenever I choose to – it was a booming job market those days and employers did not think twice before sponsoring an H1 for someone. It also helped that my marriage had not quite crumbled at that point. In short I, did not feel trapped in a situation from which there was no escape any time soon. Even so, it was not the life I wanted to have indefinitely and was only too glad to be back to work again.

I have since then known many other H4 wives who do not have the same freedom of choice I had in my time and/or are in a troubled marriage. Such a combination takes their visa enabled entrapment to a whole different level of pain. They could have been doctors in private practice in India who have nothing to do here because the process of getting qualified to work in America is too onerous and expensive. They may have years of experience in fields that ten years ago could have easily landed them a job but is impossible now. Often, these women are married to H1 visa holders who have a green card application in the works. They imagine that it is only a matter of time before they become unencumbered from the restrictions of their H4 status – they are willing to make that sacrifice in hopes of a better life in the future.

Used to be that the wait for a green card was no longer than 3-4 years. A woman had to bite the bullet for a bit, indulge in her hobbies, take the time to enjoy the activities she never had time for in the past and maybe begin a family. She could count on being able to join the workforce when she was good and ready to do so. This article would have been passingly credible in the mid to late 90s but is the worst kind of misrepresentation of today’s reality – specially with the vast majority of people having no interest or understanding of the plight of legal immigrants in this country. If such stories are given space in reputable publications like the WSJ, the chances of them being any better educated or informed about the subject are non-existent. Might that be the covert intent here given the prevailing public sentiment on immigration ?

I have to wonder who the writer’s target audience is. She does public disservice to potential H4 wives who may actually believe they could have a life similar to the one she so gushingly describes. She minimizes the suffering of her ilk with her over the top Pollyana take on what is in reality a very difficult life to lead. She provokes the rest of us who actually know the score on the H4 situation to rant like I am doing here. In a newspaper article one expects opinion and commentary to be relevant to point in time. This is not a work of fiction where content and context can be completely at odds with each other if the writer so chooses. As an aspiring writer, Shah Shroff would be aware of the fantasy genre and should have chosen that to be her vehicle for this piece.

With wait times for a green card being closer to ten years these days, the H4 induced sabbatical is hardly the walk in Central Park as Shroff Shah makes it out to be – to even suggest as such is a slap on the face of thousands of women who are craving a more dignified, financially independent and productive life than this particular visa will allow. Instead it is a mind numbing state of suspended animation that can last for an unknown length of time. While it may be a lot of different things, it is most certainly not the dream of freedom and liberty they may have had while coming to America.

Yes, they do state their intent to not work in America when they interview with the Consular Officer to be granted an H4 visa but I doubt if they fully grasp what they are getting into when they do so. They likely do not realize that they will need to abandon their career aspirations for good because by when they acquire the legal credentials to work, their skills and experience would have become too old and out-moded to be marketable. They also don't understand that continuing education and training during this indefinite wait time will become a logistical nightmare not to mention be financially prohibitive on a single income. Chances are, even their husbands are not fully aware of what to expect, or how severely limited the woman's options might really be.

Perhaps women coming to America after marriage should be made to read and hear testimonials from the worst hit victims of the H4 visa right up to the minute they go in for their interview at the American Consulate to see if they still willing to take the plunge - make this huge sacrifice at the altar of marriage. There may be no better deterrent to immigration than that.

Sure women would be well advised not to marry anyone on H1 so they don’t find themselves in such a pitiable situation in the first place. If a combination of circumstances do lead them to become H4 wives, they are left with no recourse – the strain of adjustment to this very odd way of life, tells on their physical and emotional well being. If the marriage is floundering, this can well become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The writer does much disservice to the average H1 employee whose life is fraught with a great deal of anxiety. She makes it sound like the H1 people are living a charmed life in America with nary a care in the world when nothing could be further from the truth. A layoff could terminate their American Dream, uproot children from the country of their birth and one they have come to think of as their home. The end of a contract could throw their entire lives into disarray – they have to make tough choices and within 30-60 days if they even want to stay on in America. Just like the dual intent of their visa (immigrant and non-immigrant), their lives are riddled with ambiguity.

Their career advancement opportunities are limited because they cannot have a job description any different from what was stated by their sponsor at the time of H1 filing – often this is a seven to ten year gap we are talking about. In the surreal world of H1 visas, time's arrow does not move forward - you are expected to remain who and what you were ten years ago if you aspire to gain permanent residency in this country. Your unemployed spouse bored out of their mind will atrophy alongside you too keep you company.

When the best years of someone’s career dissipate into mediocrity and drone work in the interminable wait for a green card, chances are they may feel depressed too. They are likely to be worried about their diminishing prospects in the job market. They are unable to make long term investment decisions because they have no idea what the future holds. Instead of being able to arrive in life at the age they believe they should, they find themselves in the frustrating state of trying to reach there. With all that they are often not able to be the emotional anchor the hapless H4 wife so desperately needs given her own circumstances.

Clearly, the harsh reality of the H4 wife’s life as she struggles to occupy herself gainfully in suburban America, where without a second car and public transport, she is a prisoner in her own apartment, does not shine through when the writer dishes out such self-absorbed platitudes:

I have discovered Iranian cinema, online poker and stand-up comedy. I have painted a wall, fixed a shelf and tried a combination of the mambo and cha-cha-cha. I have explored New York City. Sometimes while biking around Central Park with my husband and sometimes on my own, walking around the Village, entering shops and caf├ęs at whim. I have fallen in love with new writers, new restaurants and Broadway. And recently, wondering why I hadn't thought of it earlier, I wrote to the International Rescue Committee, volunteering my services for its media department. Having long wanted to write for a good cause, I realized once again, I now had the time.

While I wish Ms Shroff Shah well, I hope she will do us all a favor by writing a redux on this topic after seven or eight years of being a dependent wife. I look forward to reading it.


sameer said...

I read the original piece after your comments on it. It does seem like you've assumed the authoress is is attempting to represent all H4 wives, where clearly, its a narrative of her own experience - plain and simple.

Why read her story in your context, and worse, rant about it ? Surely, she's entitled to her experiences, judgment, and understanding of the situation. Of course she might change her take on the same, but why deny her the current pleasure she derives from doing whatever suits her ?

Whether WSJ wants to "permit" a point of view such as this is their concern, but one could be equally concerned if they were to disallow one pov over the other.

Anonymous said...

I do not think you can blame US government for this. They have set of rules and they abide by it. Any girl who is marrying a guy should do her due diligence. Most of them are aware of the risks involved. And they always have an option to study here if they are so smart and motivated to work

Heartcrossings said...

sameer - The author is more than welcome to write about her experience enjoying a break, savoring a new marriage etc except a WSJ column under the New Global Indian is not the right place for it. She speaks for more than herself at point and the picture she paints is not an accurate represntation of the reality of these women.

anon - Having seen several close friends who happened to be better qualified and smarter than the men they married go through the H4 trial by fire, I can assure you the lack of intelligence or motivation is the least of their problems. It is the cost and the logistics that usually come in the way of furthering their education. There is nothing to blame the US government for - women come here of their own free will and have some idea of what is involved. It is only that the reality is something you simply cannot prepare for. To that end, I think we need more people talking very candidly about how bad and ugly things can get on an H4 visa instead of articles like the one that prompted this post.

ssstoryteller said...

very well written piece
the dual challenge of being jobless, without necc.qualifications and in a foreign clime, is truly daunting...

everyone is entitled to their perspective, yet only when it is debated, the balance can be maintained...

Thanks for yr perspective, it has sensitized me to the issue

tearsndreams said...

I think she is trying to convince herself as much as anyone else.
"I am happy". Repeat 1000 times and the universe will make it happen :-)
The only good thing I can say about H4 is, it is the final step in discovering your own self. In an automatic and smooth transition from school, college to jobs, most women do not realize that they indeed love what they do. Thats how we fall for it. Foolish, young and in love, a break from work and learning to cook completes the fairy tale romance. And then on day2 it hits you.
Along with 1000s who hated being dependen, I have known a few who don't mind being brought up like children. Sure it comes with a few rules that any child has to face such as no answering back, getting an allowance..etc but for them its a fair trade off.
That's why I think its a visa that helps you discover yourself.
Had it not been for it, I wouldn't have known how much I love working and how much I hate being financially dependent.

Anonymous said...

instead of deal with the h4 issue, the author of the WSJ article moved to india and continues to work there. that is great for someone who has the option to do so, but for people who have to live in the US it can project an inaccurate, rosy picture of the h4 wive's dilemma...