A life in the USA, is a desirable one for a lot of Indians. It gives many a chance at a better job, better life and even an opportunity to live their American dream. In fact, living and working in the US, has become a sign of success and a right of passage, for many NRI bachelors, into the elite status of a great catch!
How many times have you heard a marriage alliance being described with its single most significant virtue – Ladka NRI hain, Umreeka mein kaam karta hain! (The groom is an NRI and works in the USA!).
You see, the US still brings up images of Shah Rukh Khan serenading his lady love from the gorgeous Brooklyn bridge or the Bachchans living in a mansion with white people bringing them their morning tea. There is something about that picture that still attract many parents to desire a dollar’d life for their children.
So it happens. Every year H1B work visa holders gather up their annual vacation leave and make the trip back home for a Whatsapp “chat” mangni & pat byah. And every year, a young Indian girl travels across the oceans to land up in an unknown country with a man she barely knows. She becomes an H4 visa holder – the dependent spouse. While such a visa status is not exclusive for women, of course, but they constitute the largest number of dependent visa holders.
What makes, being an H4 dependent spouse, especially difficult?
Well, it starts with the realization that there is no red Ferrari, no large mansion and the place she will now call home is a city with a population of ten.
And it certainly doesn’t help that the ever friendly United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, lovingly known as Immigration, have these rules that render the current 100,000 H4 Visa holders bound to their homes.
They are not allowed to work or earn anything, not even from online or stay-at-home jobs that can help them gain some measure of financial independence. There are no Social Security Numbers for them and the only thing they are literally allowed to do, outside home, is shop for groceries. Talk about regressive!
Many such dependents, most of whom are forced housewives, have excellent qualifications and probably even had successful careers before they were transformed into a perpetual state of inactivity. The archaic laws prevent these legal immigrants from any opportunities.
The land of dreams often turns into a nightmare, for the dependent spouse, who, in the best case scenario, has a compassionate partner who helps her through the depression of feeling lonely and worthless. In its worst form, there are known cases of emotional or even physical abuse due to a total lack of independence.
While there have been attempts to allow for certain concessions in the rules for H4 Visa holders, the conditions for those concessions are still very rigid. The road to independence is still convoluted. Delhi still bahut dooor hain!
However, here is an attempt to list the various ways an H4 Visa holder can find a way, however long and winding, towards a satisfactory life.
Path from H4 to freedom
Let’s talk about EAD baby!
Starting May of 2015, the US Government took a step towards making things right. The USCIS director Leon Rodriguez announced that certain H4 Visa holders would be allowed to work in the US as long as – here’s the catch – certain conditions are met. As per the new rules, the H4 dependent spouses are allowed to apply for I-765 or Employment Authorization Card, which is a temporary work permit, as long as the principal H1B holder satisfies one of the conditions (Ref. From USCIS.gov).
1) Are the principal beneficiaries of an approved Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker; or
2) Have been granted H-1B status under sections 106(a) and (b) of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 as amended by the 21st Century Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act. The Act permits H-1B non-immigrants seeking lawful permanent residence to work and remain in the United States beyond the six-year limit on their H-1B status.
There are a lot of Sections and clauses, here, that require a lobotomy to understand. But for now you can go for these brief explanations.
The first one allows EAD application by H4 spouses of those H1B individuals who are going green, if you will. That means a PERM labor certification has been filed already and an I-140 has been approved.
The second are for spouses of those H1B holders who have already applied for permanent residence and are now on H1B extension beyond the first 6 years.
For either one, the H1B needs to be valid for ones’ spouse to apply.
While it really helps the spouses of all the workers who are on their way to the Hulk card, it still ignores the many others whose spouses are simply on H1B and nowhere near a permanent residence application. But it is at least a bone.
All I need is a miracle, all I need is H1B
It is possible, though difficult, that you find an employer who can sponsor your H1B. The only problem with this is that it is a hard enough economy to find an employer, let alone find one who will be willing to sponsor your H1B.
To make matters worse, you cannot be seen, heard or even thought to be working for them until your H1B is approved. Nonetheless, there are many well qualified dependents who could possess a skill very dear to some company. Like Apple will probably offer you a job if you possess the technical expertize to design a camera that screams at people who pout on selfies. They might even send a basket of edible arrangements with half eaten apples along with an H1B.
Ode to a degree in H4
It is possible to get into a degree program while in H4. The advantage is that you don’t have to pay the extra international student fees and you can always get enrolled in an in-state college for even cheaper tuition.
Getting a degree, while in H4, isn’t a remarkable step towards getting a job since you don’t have the luxury of applying for an OPT (Optional Practical Training) like your F1 fellows. For those who think I am just reading off the English alphabet, here’s a crash course.
OPT just makes the transition, from a student F1 to an H1B employee, less dramatic. Companies can employ someone in F1-OPT and have a good one year to process their H1B. With your H4, however, companies won’t have the convenience of hiring first and then processing a work visa, ‘coz the US Government is very clear on its thou shall not worketh policy.
Nevertheless, here’s a plan that may help you. While in H4, you can choose a program that can train you with a job skill. You can then apply for an EAD as your H1B partner becomes eligible for a green card application (I-140 approved). Totally twisted like jalebi. But just like one, the end result may be delicious after all.
Or you can apply for H1B sponsorable companies directly. But good luck on that!
Stairway to H1B, through F1 or J1 visa
This is the most straightforward path to a job. Say you know the University and the program you want to pursue. You can start studying, under your valid H4 status and make sure you satisfy certain conditions for a change of status to an F1 or J1.
A change of status differs from a visa. To know what each means, please talk to the office of International students, at your University, follow the USCIS page and make sure you have said all your prayers. So, here are the conditions.
- That your spouse has a valid H1B.
- You have a valid approved I-20 from your University and a I-901 SEVIS receipt.
- You can travel outside the US to get a visa stamped for F1 or J1, as long as you have an I-20 or a DS-2019 form and the I-901 receipt. It is strongly recommended that you speak with the International Office of your University before you set sail. And it is most definitely recommended that you come back to India, to get it stamped, if you really want to get it stamped outside of the US. If it is some country other than India, you better talk to the US consulate in that country before you go.
- If you want a change of status from within US, then you should most definitely meet with the International Office and use their immense knowledge to know how and when to file for a I-539 form. There are travel restrictions that you must keep in mind.
- Whatever you do, make sure you have all your papers ready by visiting your International Office and please please PLEASE don’t mess up your chances by illegally working while your F1 is yet to be approved.
Talk to the experts before you take any step. Basically just camp outside the University International Office to save on commute!
Working while on F1 requires you to have an F1 Visa stamped for in-campus jobs.
And of course, once you get your F1 status approved, it’s then a simple process to get an OPT (or CPT) upon graduation. You can then obtain a job and get your H1B sponsored. Just make sure your job matches your field of study. A Physics major applying for a chef’s job may just be given a warm hug and no visa.
You can even explore other visa categories for a change of status. There are the J1 and O1, each of which will claim a kidney and a limb! Just kidding. They won’t need your limb.
A change of status to J1 may require you to consider the possibility of applying for a waiver from going back to your home country for two years.
Just remember that any change requires the undesirable possibility of administrative complications. If any of your visa requests happens to get rejected, your stay in the US may get jeopardized.
Country roads could take you home
This final solution is always at your disposal.
The Indian economy is booming, as we all know and there is now a surge of people returning back home (Read Why NRIs are returning?-The Reverse Brain Drain).
Women are finding ways to explore the balance of family demands and active professions (Read Balancing Motherhood vs Career) and people are even looking at innovative measures towards financial independence from home (Read Jobs for stay-at-home Moms and Dads).
Not to mention the limits that Indian women have crossed to be involved in some of the most challenging professions in this country (Read Best jobs for women- A few or limitless?).
Maybe it is worth to consider the repercussions of a life without financial independence that dependents, most of whom are women, are facing everyday in the US. Maybe it is time to consider how loneliness and frustrations can possibly lead to more dangerous effects like depression. And maybe you consider the possibility of making a life back home in India (Read NRI checklist to return home).
Instead of jumping around between F1, H4, J1 and all the visas that sound like chess notations, you and your spouse could always choose to come back home- you know the land where the only status anyone will care about is the one on your Facebook?
In conclusion, life in the US is not easy. Especially not if you are left at the mercy of an individual who holds the key to your existence and a system which prevents you from being free. The price of living as an NRI should not come at the cost of your self. Here’s to hoping that you find a way to do what makes you happy wherever you are – on a Pin Code here or a Zip Code there!
Meanwhile, here are a few helpful links to get your hands on useful Visa information.
–FAQs for EAD application while on H4 Visa.
-How does a change of status differs from a visa?
-Procedure for change of status from H4 to F1 and example list of papers required.
-Read this for more information for change of status to F1 or J1.