World of Pain

Immigrant Wives of Silicon Alley Seek Protection From Battering

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.

"They would say everything will be all right after four or five years."
illustration: Patrick Arrasmith
"They would say everything will be all right after four or five years."

For most, the only alternative is working under the table—which further jeopardizes their immigration status and their chance of winning child custody. But in states such as New York, 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, the New York-based 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 week, 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."

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