Battered Wives Trapped by Their Visas

Mallika came to American in late 1998, filled with hope. She had left behind family and friends in India to start a new life with her husband, who had just taken a software position at a large technology firm in New York City.

That optimism was soon replaced by despair, as months of daily verbal abuse from her husband escalated into physical violence. "He would humiliate me every day, call me names, slap me, pull my hair," she says. "I would just sit there and cry all the time. Every day felt so long."

Yet whenever Mallika's husband threatened to divorce her, she would beg him to stay. For her, divorce spelled poverty -- and worse, deportation.

Mallika (not her real name) belongs to a little-known but growing class of battered spouses: the wives of foreign computer professionals. Each year, thousands of male software engineers and programmers come to this country for high-tech jobs, bringing with them wives whose legal right to stay here depends on the wage earner. Women like Mallika are held prisoner by immigration policies that give their husbands complete control over their lives.

"These laws are biased toward those who can contribute to the economy," San Francisco-based immigration lawyer Dean Ito Taylor says. "These women are not even a priority for lawmakers. The attitude is that they have not earned any right to protection."

Now some immigration advocates are working to change the law. They're pushing for a new class of visa that could help battered women. Buried in a gargantuan Senate bill reauthorizing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, the provision would create a "T" visa that allows people who have suffered mental or physical violence -- and who have cooperated with police and prosecutors -- to live and work in this country indefinitely and to apply for a permanent green card after three years. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) could issue up to 10,000 T visas each year.

"There is definitely a greater willingness and readiness to help these people," says Leslye Orloff, the director of the immigrant women's program at the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense Fund, which is leading the charge for the legislation. "[The members of Congress] understand we cannot be serious about prosecuting domestic violence without offering real protection to the victims."

Orloff says the current immigration laws are based on the outdated notion that a man owns his family. Under this system, women enter the country on an H-4 spousal visa, which ties their immigration status to their husband's H-1B work visa. When the marriage ends, the woman has to leave the country.

"If an H-1 divorces an H-4, she is immediately considered deportable," says Sandhya Puranic, who works with battered South Asian women. "It's his biggest weapon against her." If a woman leaves an abusive husband, or presses charges, he can immediately start divorce proceedings. He can also take a variety of actions short of divorce that jeopardize his wife's immigration status. Since an H-1B visa is tied to a specific company, he can simply change jobs, applying for another visa through his new employer. That H1-B won't cover his wife unless he chooses to petition on her behalf. Or he can simply quit his job and leave the country, only to return later on a new visa.

"The central message here is that he really holds all the cards," says immigration lawyer Kathleen Sullivan, who consults with domestic violence advocates in Silicon Valley. "Anything he does affects her situation, her future."

For many of these women, returning to their native country is not an option, since divorce can bring shame and ostracism on the family. Though she comes from a wealthy, liberal family, Mallika says her parents would continually plead with her husband not to divorce her. "They think we should worship him and his family," she says. And they kept pushing her to make the marriage work, even after she moved into a shelter in May. "They would say everything will be all right after four or five years," she says, through tears. She is afraid her family will pressure her into marrying again if she returns to India.

According to Orloff, the home country often provides less protection for women's custody and alimony rights. Deportation is dangerous for women with children, even when the case ends up in a U.S. court. They may not be able to take their children out of the country unless they have gained custody. Many immigrant women don't have the financial resources to wage a custody battle, since spouse visas don't allow the holder to work or receive public assistance.

Mallika's husband controlled all the bank accounts and credit cards, therefore ensuring she never had any money of her own. "If I didn't obey him, he would tell me to get out of the house with my baby, or say he's going to move out and not pay the rent," she says. "His attitude was that since I don't work, I don't have any rights."

A counselor at the New York Asian Women's Center describes Mallika as a well-educated person traumatized by abuse from which there seemed no escape. "When she came to us she was very fragile," says Mehula Shah. "She was in shock. She just couldn't believe this had happened to her."

Domestic-violence groups typically try to get battered immigrants a student visa or an H-1B work visa. But many women can't afford tuition, and others don't have the technical qualifications required for an H-1B.

Mallika has been more fortunate than others. Already armed with an engineering degree, she was able to take additional computer classes thanks to a loan from friends. One of the employees of the Asian Women's Center found her a job at a software company, and she has applied for a work visa.

For most, the only alternative is working under the table -- which further jeopardizes their immigration status and their chance of winning child custody. In some states these women may lose out if they can't provide for their kids.

Taylor, the San Francisco attorney, says most immigrant women give up when they learn about the immense legal and financial constraints. "For the majority of the women, we cannot guarantee their safety," he says. "We just don't have the laws to protect them."

The lack of protection also makes it more difficult to determine the extent of the problem. Over the past few years, domestic-violence organizations have reported a steady increase in their H-4-related caseloads. One agency, Sakhi, has received over 150 complaints in the last six months. The trend parallels the rapid growth in the number of high-tech immigrant workers. In 1998, Congress nearly doubled the annual limit of H-1B visas, to 115,000. Faced with a full-employment economy hungry for qualified labor, lawmakers are poised to raise the limits again.

"There is definitely a softening in [Congress's] position on immigration," says Democratic representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, sponsor of a House bill to create the T visa. "There is also a greater and more active interest in women's issues due to the desire of both political parties to appeal to women."

The measure has also received support from the INS, especially since it has strict conditions for eligibility. "This provision deals with only the most rigorous cases," NOW's Orloff says. "One slap isn't going to do it. The women have to show substantial physical and mental injury."

Despite the lack of significant opposition, the future of the T visa remains mired in partisan politics. The House reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act last month, but the Senate's Republican leadership has not yet set a date for a floor vote on the bill. Prominent Democrats, including Vice President Al Gore, are now accusing Republican leaders of deliberately blocking the reauthorization of the bill.

"There is no real reason why they shouldn't vote on it, since it has strong bipartisan support," Schakowsky says. "[It's] being held as a bargaining chip in a broader negotiating strategy for these final days."

That's an accusation Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott vigorously denies. "It's completely untrue," says spokesman John Czwartacki. "Senator Lott is working very hard to get this bill passed."

Still, Schakowsky and others are optimistic the measure will pass, extending a degree of protection to a group of women long given the cold shoulder by U.S. law. "So far these women have received very little relief from the legal system," Orloff says. "It will be a significant step in the right direction."

A version of this story appeared in the Village Voice.


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