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Mallika came to New York 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 Silicon Alley firm.
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 povertyand worse, deportation.
Foreign wives are held prisoner by immigration policies that give their husbands complete control over their lives.
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 violenceand who have cooperated with police and prosecutorsto 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 in New Jersey. "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."