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feminist wire | daily newsbriefs

April-18-01

Married to the Visa - Part I

Women who cannot obtain U visas must either leave the country or stay in abusive relationships. Deportation is especially hard on women from societies that stigmatize divorce. In India, which accounts for more than 40 percent of all H-1B–related immigration, courts rarely enforce custody or alimony laws. And divorced or separated women are likely to face intense pressure to return to their husbands from their in-laws and their own families. Ankita says she dreaded the prospect of becoming a social outcast: "I didn't want that kind of life for my baby."

Fear also makes women reluctant to press charges or file for restraining orders against their husbands. "The moment she takes any action against him, he is going to start divorce proceedings," Puranic says. Pressing charges can backfire in other ways. In some cases, a company might fire a man accused of abuse. And though district attorneys rarely report such crimes to the INS, domestic violence is a deportable offense. Either way, he loses his visa and has to leave the country. But if he is deported, so is she.

Immigration law does not allow H-4 visa holders to work or receive welfare benefits. "The intent is to limit the entry of immigrant labor. They don't want the spouses to get a foothold in the country," Sullivan says. Holders of H-4 visas are not entitled to a social security number, and therefore cannot open a bank account. In some states they can't even get a driver's license or phone service. "On an H-4, I cannot do anything. I cannot even go to McDonald's and flip burgers. If I leave the house with the baby, what am I going to do?" Ankita says.

The problem partly lies in the very structure of U.S. immigration laws, which are built on the patriarchal tradition of ownership. "The idea that men own their wives and children grew out of English common law," Leslye Orloff, director of the Immigrant Women's Program at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, says. "The concept is that the immigrant spouse should control the family." In fact, until the 1950s only men could confer U.S. citizenship on their spouses; women who were U.S. citizens could not do the same for their foreign husbands. Even after the laws became gender-neutral, the idea of a man "owning" his family remained unchallenged.

In the early 1990s, a broad coalition of immigrant, domestic violence, and health care groups launched a national campaign to change family-based immigration laws. But they focused on the rights of noncitizen battered women married to citizens and permanent residents. The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, included a provision allowing women to apply for green cards without their husbands' approval. But despite the coalition's best efforts, the Republican-controlled Congress refused to grant similar rights to battered wives of nonresidents. "There was a lot of concern about opening up the floodgates and a real fear of immigration fraud among conservative members of Congress," Orloff says.

While advocates continue working to change immigration laws—a slow process at best—anti-domestic violence organizations aimed at immigrant women provide immediate assistance in the form of financial support, legal advice, and desperately needed validation. In Ankita's case, Mukta Sharangapani, program director for Maitri, "was the only one who believed me—that I wasn't doing anything to provoke [my husband]." Counselors also provide women with another scarce commodity: information. Immigrant women often do not possess even the most basic knowledge of available resources. "We take something like 911 for granted. But many women won't even know that. Who's going to tell her? Her husband?" says a frustrated Firoza Chic Dabby, who runs Narika, a resource group based in Berkeley, California. Sharangapani has had clients who do not have keys to their mailbox or know their street address. In some cases, they can't even call for help because their

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