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April-18-01

Married to the Visa - Part I

Ankita's (not her real name) ordeal began in early 1998 when she arrived in the United States with her new husband, an Indian software engineer working for a prestigious Silicon Valley firm. For nearly two years he beat her almost daily, slapping, punching, and kicking her even when she was pregnant. She finally called the cops the day both her eardrums burst from his blows. But when he threatened to divorce her for "ruining his life," Ankita begged him to let her stay. "I told him, 'I'm sorry. I won't do this again,' and fell at his feet crying," she says.

For Ankita, a noncitizen, divorce spelled deportation. If her husband had been a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S., she would have had the right to leave him and apply for her own green card to stay in the country. But her husband was in the country on an H-1B work visa—the kind reserved for highly skilled technology workers and other specialized professionals. Because Ankita's visa, a spousal H-4, was inextricably tied to her husband's, the end of her marriage would also be the end of her right to stay in the U.S. If she returned to India, Ankita would have to leave her eight-month-old baby behind, since taking her son out of the country without her husband's consent could be considered kidnapping by both the U.S. and India.

As demand for high-tech workers grows, Congress has increased the number of H-1B visas given out annually, which increases the number of spouses potentially in Ankita's position. Of the 115,000 H-1B visas issued in 2000, over 53 percent went to computer professionals, most of whom were men. If those men are married, their wives have little protection under the law. And if those marriages turn violent or abusive, the women find themselves trapped, imprisoned by an immigration system that gives their abusers total control over their lives. While exact data is difficult to come by, the number of H-4 domestic violence cases has been climbing steadily in virtually every tech corridor in the country. Sakhi, a New York-based antiĞdomestic violence organization for South Asian women, receives an average of 30 new calls per month, many of them from women on H-4 visas. In Silicon Valley, a similar group named Maitri reported that at least 50 percent of the 1,800 complaints they received last year were H-4Ğrelated. And the San Jose District Attorney's office reports receiving at least two new cases each week.

"The immigration laws put so much power in the hands of the husband. She is totally dependent on him—legally, financially, and emotionally," says Sandhya Puranic, who works with battered South Asian women in New Jersey. "He is both literally and figuratively the master," says Puranic. This dependence can potentially threaten women's lives by making it extremely difficult to escape to safety. San Francisco-based immigration lawyer Dean Ito Taylor says current H-1B laws are designed to meet the needs of a labor-hungry Silicon Valley. "The laws are biased toward those who can contribute to the economy. These women are not even a priority," he says. "The unspoken thought is 'Why should we care? They should just go back home.'"

In October 2000, as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, Congress took a step toward amending the law by creating a "U" visa, which allows nonresident aliens who have suffered "substantial physical or mental abuse" to remain and work in the country indefinitely—if they cooperate with law enforcement authorities to prosecute their abusers. As victims of domestic violence, women on H-4 visas are eligible for the U visa and can apply for a green card after three years. There is an annual quota of 10,000 U visas, which are available to victims of rape, trafficking, FGM, and other abuses, not just domestic violence. Some immigration advocates worry that the visas won't be much help. They argue that immigrant women may not know about the visa and are generally una

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