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Monday, 6 February 2017

The uncertainty of the H1B visa wife (even before Trump swung into action)

As the US president throws a question mark over the fate of Indians working in America, Radhika M.B.'s a new book -- Visa Wives: Emigration Experiences of Indian Women in the US -- examines the nerve-wracking visa process for spouses. Below is the excerpts published on Scroll:

Morning traffic raced by on the Gemini Flyover as the queue outside the US consulate in Chennai grew longer. The blistering late morning sun made people in the queue wipe sweat off their hands, forehead and neck every once in a while. Vanitha Shashi tried hard to remain calm.

It was the spring of 2000 – in reality, summer in Chennai. A turmeric mangalsutra thread (one of the wedding ornaments worn by married women in India as a symbol of their marital status) adorned her neck, its two tiny gold bowls new and shiny.

Every few minutes, she wiped beads of sweat off her forehead and neck. Vanitha had worn more wedding jewellery than was her wont, to project a “bridal look”. The henna on her hands was still fresh. What she was not prepared for was the twenty-five other girls wearing similar turmeric threads, waiting in the queue clutching their bundles of documents.

Within the secured walls of the building, she awaited one of the most important exams of her life.
She had often appeared for interminable examinations, but this one would, it seemed, seal her fate. Was she eligible to travel to the US at all?

Vanitha wished her husband was with her at that time. On their phone call the previous night, he had assured her that she would be granted the visa, and that she should not worry. Her father was with her, though, which was a solace. Things had not been going well at her in-laws’ home in Hyderabad. They seemed to be very unhappy with her husband, and he was not around to face their ire – she was. They resorted to taunting her for things her husband had done or not done, long before she had even entered his life.

Now, standing in the queue, she wondered if those taunts would play havoc in her head during those crucial minutes at the counter. Her visa application was not for H4, but F2. She would be the dependent resident of a student, as her husband was then pursuing his PhD. Vanitha also wondered if they would send her application into the visas mantis, given her husband’s subject of study – physics.

The visas mantis is one of the many forms of security clearance, or security advisory opinions (SAOs), put in place by the US government – to grant or deny a visa to certain visa applicants, mainly used for individuals hailing from countries suspected of sponsoring terrorism. If a visa mantis SAO request is raised by the consulate, an investigation request is sent out to various federal agencies in the United States to inquire into the individual’s case for possible espionage, terrorism, and illegal export of technology outside the US. A visa cannot be granted to the applicant unless a satisfactory response is received from all the agencies investigating the case.

It can delay one’s visa by a few days or weeks, and it is impossible to expedite an individual visa process once the request has been raised. No one had given Vanitha tips for the interview. She was worried, though she tried to not show it. “What if the documents are not good enough?” Her husband’s stipend was all of $1200 then. What if the officer decided that the amount was not enough for two people to live on?

After submitting her documents, she awaited her turn at the interview counter. She saw two other girls with new turmeric threads get rejected. “It looked like they did not understand the questions. When my turn came, I understood what they were saying because I used to often watch American television series and was familiar with their accent.”

The one question that ran through Sathya’s mind before her visa interview was: “Why should our Indian names be influenced by Western usage?”

A part of her protested against the hegemony. On the one hand, she knew some villagers who had no idea of their family names or even their right age, and had spent a happy life without being sure of such details. On the other, here she was trying to get her name and age right to the letter and proving it as well. Naturally, her irritation was palpable.

Ahead of her H4 visa interview, she memorised the basic details about her husband, his role in the company, and made sure to carry a set of her wedding pictures – what the instructions called the “fire ceremony”. She was not happy with the quality of the photograph that accompanied her application. She looked bloated, dejected, lost and scared as she stared at the camera, her face pale like that of a ghost.

Her husband had not travelled to the US by the time of her interview. And the copy of his stamped visa showed the officer that.

“Good morning,” the officer greeted her.

“Good morning,” she said. Looking back, she feels she should have said, “How are you today?”

He asked her for her documents, which she promptly handed over.

He checked them, and asked her the expected question.

“What is your highest qualification?” She had a post-graduate diploma, but her husband had told her it was not valid in the US.

“Bachelor of Arts.”

“What is the name of your father-in-law?” he asked. She gave him the right name.

“What is your husband’s date of birth?”

She told him the date, slow and clear.

Her husband had given her a useful instruction: “Ask

them to repeat the question if you cannot understand something. They will repeat it for you.”

“Do you have your husband’s payslips for the last one year?”

This was something she was not prepared for. His payslips had not been mentioned as a part of the essential documents list, but were required now as a result of his not having left for the States yet.

She could not make head or tail of what the official said after that. She could not fathom his accent any more.

He kept the I-797, the client letter from the US company inviting her husband, and returned her passport.

Sathya’s heart sank. Not taking the passport meant rejection. He handed her a blue sheet of printed directions and wrote a number on it. She did hear something to the effect of additional documents. It all happened so quickly that she had already left the counter before she came to her senses.

Confused, she approached another official in the waiting room.

“I got this sheet. Do you know what it means?”

The lady said she was not allowed to talk to applicants. She was obviously conscious of the surveillance cameras.

“Come on! This is a genuine query. I only need to know what this is!” Sathya’s thoughts screamed inside her head, even as no words spilled out. This was a rejection.

She quickly stepped outside, feeling entirely responsible for the situation. Her husband would not be able to travel. Calling him from the nearest payphone, she wailed as soon as he answered, “I got rejected. They gave me a blue sheet and the passport too!”

“Don’t worry. It’s not a rejection. They just need additional documents,” he tried to calm her down, though his tone relayed apprehension.

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