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What it’s like to be a H1B visa wife even before Trump’s curbs

Even as the Trump administration proposes H1B visa restrictions, an excerpt from the book 'Visa Wives' reveals the enormous insecurities these visa holders and their families already deal with

People waiting outside American  embassy for visa.  Photo: S. Burmaula
People waiting outside American embassy for visa. Photo: S. Burmaula

You might have heard how work visas can get exploitative in the new country. But you truly understand the turmoil that work visa vulnerability puts you in only when you actually experience it. The tenure of a standard non-immigrant visa like H1B is six years. The permit for the individual’s stay in the US is not granted for the entire period of six years at a stretch. If you are a skilled worker, you might get a valid visa for one year too, and would need to get it extended from time to time.

Not every on-site posting is one that might last over a year or two. Your spouse or you might be told by the company that “this is the only project available. Take it. If things work out, you might be retained. Otherwise you can find other projects."

The on-site client company then plays god. You thought you could make it for nine months. Three months on, “market compulsion", “large-scale downsizing" and other such phrases can send you back home. “My colleague was good at his job. But to terminate his services, they sent the security personnel to his desk, and escorted him out. They would not even let him collect his things."

Once a client company decides to terminate your role in the project, you will need to fall back on your India-based employer company to be assigned to another project. This is time-bound. Usually, companies allow their employees to stay on for a few weeks after termination. These weeks can be a drain, emotionally and practically.

Says Sailu Balakrishna, whose husband has made such moves five times in two years, “When it happens the first time, you get tense. You do not know how the process works. By the second time, you get used to it. If you have made up your mind to go back to India after a while, you view this as a chance to live abroad. But if you want to stay on, your peace of mind is impacted. We are usually unhappy with the companies. They project some tenure which may be long and push us out too early. Sometimes, they stand by their word. It is all right if the tenure is shortened or extended by a month. But when they say they will keep him for eight months and turn him out in four and a half, we feel cheated. Usually, it is unlikely that you will get the next assignment in the same state. Even if another project is assigned, uncertainty looms ahead."...

What happens when you are given the pink slip from the client company? What does it do to not just the H1B visa holder, but also the woman who has left everything behind and joined him in the hope of a new life? Pink-slip fears and nightmares of H1B holders can affect families greatly.

Who gets to stay on and who doesn’t? How do people fight their circumstances?

Kripakar Nath and his wife were both working on their respective H1B visas when her visa was rejected. The only option was to convert her visa to an H4 if she were to continue living in the same town. Misfortune played its cards. In the same week, Kripakar’s office laid him off. He was forced to make a decision on whether to stay on or move back to India.

A key factor for them was their five-year-old son and his schooling. Kripakar did not want to jeopardize his son’s chance of staying on in the US, and so sent his wife and child to live in India for a while. Meanwhile, he vacated his home, put their furniture in storage and moved in with some bachelor colleagues.

He constantly tried looking out for other assignments through his Indian company, but also kept in touch with the boss who had given him the pink slip. It took him some months and efforts with his old boss to get back into the same office on a new assignment. It played havoc on their family life in the bargain. Kripakar’s wife continued working in India, and was dependent on her own parents for support in taking care of her child.

Visa Wives: Emigration Experiences of Indian Women in the US by Radhika M.B.

Should a new assignment be allotted in another state within the US, it is likely that families might choose to stay on in their locations for the sake of their child’s schooling till such time as the spouse settles down in his new assignment. Such moves transform transcontinental nomads to intra-country nomads of the IT workforce. Such a life might make sense for those who are backpackers at heart. For the ones seeking stability and a sense of settling down, it is hell.

Consider this, a typical transition day for an H1B holder. Sailu’s husband, Anuj, was on the verge of finishing his current project in Texas—the project he was sent to the US for. With a whole two months of uncertainty, the two were very worried. Inside Sailu’s troubled head, a storm was brewing. “Why is he not being aggressive? Why does he take anything anyone says at face value? Why does he trust people blindly?" She wanted the American dream to work. But was this really that dream?

Their future was hanging in the air. Here she was, having left her own job, to support him through the transition, hoping against hope that he would land a long-term assignment soon. And yet, her own sacrifice of her career seemed to be mocking her. She took tired steps into the kitchen to get breakfast ready—and stared at the spartan plastic canisters with half-finished grocery supplies. “Have to finish these before we move back to India."

She let out a loud sigh. “Or not." It was obvious that she did not want to go back. Anuj did not want to go back either. Neither of them was sure how desperately the other wanted to stay on in the US. “If things don’t work out, come back. You can make money in India too," his mother had told him the previous night. From what he had said in response, Sailu was sure he sought solace in returning home, to the comforting proximity of his parents.

From the kitchen, she heard him talk to his boss. She knew his manager was giving him false assurances. The end of the project was days away. Anuj’s profile was up on the intranet site of his company in the ‘resources available’ section. Calls that initially came in were for the north—Seattle. He was keen on taking it up, though the thought of a harsh winter scared him.

“Wait for a better project that does justice to your technical capabilities. This one is a diversion from your profile," suggested his manager. An entire week after Anuj heeded that piece of advice, they were left with conversations that ended with no return calls, possible “client interviews" and no other project availability. Each time he responded to any calls, Sailu was immediately on the Internet searching out those places—Minnesota, Arizona, Tennessee.

“Hurry up. Once Thanksgiving arrives, no one in your company will be in the mood to work or assign projects. Grab what you get," Anuj’s friend from Philadelphia told him. Anuj felt sandwiched between the ‘go, get it now’ pressures of his near ones, and the non-committal attitude of his boss. “What if it’s destiny for me to go back to India? What will these company guys think of me if I keep going after them for my work? It’s not right to disturb people ..."

Sailu was enraged. She felt the urge to chat with his bosses directly and ask them what was happening. She had experience in IT too, and understanding of the way bosses and systems work. It was a game she knew like the back of her hand. She had grasped the jobs game in the US economy too very quickly.

Soon it was Thanksgiving, the holiday weekend when company bigwigs would be away with families feasting on turkey or shopping. “We have a project in Arizona. You are a good fit, but the client will need to interview you," said an HR representative from his company. An interview with the client always takes some scheduling. The couple knew this would take a few days. They had to take a call on vacating their Houston apartment.

Sailu had taken pains to assimilate in their Houston neighbourhood. She made a bunch of friends among the Indians out there. For the first time in her life, she felt uninhibited about exercising in her neighbourhood gym.

Women would send their kids off to school and spend an hour or two at the gym every morning, giving them a break from the daily chores. They had even planned a trip together soon—with all the families. It had hardly been a few months. She had sacrificed her own career—for what? This “now here, now gone" situation?

Excerpted from Visa Wives: Emigration Experiences of Indian Women in the US by Radhika M.B. (Ebury Press, 320 pages, Rs399 ), with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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