I still remember the long shuttle ride from JFK airport in New York to Philadelphia on a freezing January evening in 2008. I was so charged up at the idea of starting a new life in a new country that even the bone-chilling cold couldn’t dampen my excitement. The feeling of euphoria continued through the first six months of my marriage. My
husband was in his last semester at a B-School. In that indulgent phase, we strolled on the undulating streets of San Francisco, gambled in the casinos of Vegas, celebrated graduation in sunny Miami, and travelled to Europe for a break. I had conveniently forgotten late night reporting assignments, the struggle for five story ideas a week, and deadlines that loomed like the Damocles sword. The sabbatical was good until I realised it wasn’t going to end any time soon.
After graduating, my husband joined a consulting firm in New York and travelled through the week. That was when I understood what I had signed up for. The H-4 visa (for spouses of H-1B visa holders) took away my right to work and be financially independent. I felt cut off from the addictive world of media that I had joined at 21. None of the several dailies and magazines were ready to sponsor me. My work as a freelancer got published, but didn’t allow payment. I was now a 27-year-old dependent, ineligible even to open a bank account.
With the H-4 visa, I had traded my vibrant social life with one of loneliness. I felt invisible when I peeped out of my window as well-groomed men and women rushed to work holding their morning dose of caffeine. We decided to take the only route that could get me a temporary work permit. In 2011, I went back to school to switch from H-4 visa to F-1 (student) visa. I signed up for the University’s Master’s programme in Social Organisational Psychology at Columbia University.
I enjoyed the course, but the real learning came from my three internships in organisational development afterwards.
My job was to assist in employee engagement, yet I had little motivation in conducting analysis on employee performance and holding repetitive staff training workshops.
This May, a number of H-4 wives (and a few H-4 husbands) in the US will have the freedom to begin a career of their own. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that around 1,79,600 people could be eligible to apply for employment authorisation this year and 55,000 annually going forward. And, finally I have an opportunity to return to the only field that was not work, but therapy for my soul.
Richa Agarwal is a former journalist. She lives in New Jersey, USA