An H4 in Silicon Valley

I am happily married to a geek. Ever since he finished university he has been moving from country to country following new and more interesting jobs. I have been trying to follow him and since October last year we have been living in Sunnyvale, California. The other times we were living in Europe, and as an european I could work and move from place to place with no problems except maybe the language. In the USA though things are different. Although I have a degree and was working in Europe, when we moved here I had to stay at home. My husband came here with a H-1B visa and I have a H4 which is issued to immediate family members (spouse and children under 21 years of age) of the H-1B visa holders. With the H4 visa I am not allowed to work, although I am allowed to study and do volunteer work.
I know other bright and educated women who are in the same position and it seems to be consensual that this H4 visa, puts women/men holding it in a difficult place. I have done some research (as I wondered how many people were forced to stay in a country depending exclusively on their spouses) and there seems to be quite a few. I even found this video on Youtube of a Tv show called To the contrary, where this issue was discussed some years ago, mainly because one spouse made a video about what it’s like to be a H4. Having just arrived I had no idea how seriously wrong things could go – from people trying to commit suicide to women entrapped in violent marriages, I have read and heard more than I expected to.
For those who think and say “Well it was your decision to come here, you knew what you were getting into”, I can say Yes, it was a decision we had to make and we knew what it implied to be a H4. But, nothing prepares you to the reality of living in a different and totally alien country, where you have no family or friends, where you may not be able to speak the language, and where you can’t even help others because the immigration may think you are being paid unlawfully. If you want to do volunteer work you need to be very careful where you do it. It may not be a volunteer work that is a job for others, as in, if someone is being paid for the same job in the same place, you can’t do it as a volunteer.
Being a H4 has its pros and cons. You can certainly use that time to catch up your reading, enjoy the free time, get lots of rest, meet people, workout, take care of the house and children if you have them, learn something new, you know, whatever you please!
Still, there is only so much you can do with your free time and after years waiting for a working visa or a greencard you can go nuts just trying to figure out what to do next!
It is true that if you can get a company that can apply for a H1B, you can change from H4 to the working visa. I would like to know if that ever happened. Since I arrived I have had people offering me jobs but after I explained my situation and mentioned that I would need them to apply for a H-1B for me and although they clearly said they desperately need people like me for this job, things didn’t go through. If you were employed and an active member of society before you came here, the chances are you may end up feeling useless, trapped and humiliated in a way. If you were making your own money and being free to do as you pleased before you moved here, after you move, and with a H4 you may feel sometimes like a child again, having to ask for money and depend on your spouse for everything. If you are lucky enough, as I am, you won’t need to, but from what I have read in some blogs, other women are not that lucky and even get physically and psychologically abused by their husbands.
H4, some people think, is an absurd visa. Why not allow these spouses to apply for a job, specially when in some cases (like mine) no american person could do what they can? In my case in particular, the jobs I was offered could never be done by any american because they were looking for native portuguese (I translate from English to Portuguese). So, here I am in the middle of Silicon Valley, where I could be happily working, feeling fulfilled and accomplished, but instead I’m being forced to stay at home.
The option to not coming here? Living miles and miles away from your husband and putting your marriage on hold for who knows how long. I don’t have children, but many couples do. How do those people who say “you knew what it would be like, moving here was your choice” even dare to say that? How dare they suggest that families have to live apart or move here together and just try to cope with the limitations imposed by immigration laws? These specialised jobs bring us here for the great opportunity they represent, but we also make a profit for the country. We pay taxes and spend our money here. This is a win-win situation, but what I mean is, everybody could benefit even more if the spouses, most of them with very unique skills, could contribute too.
The companies bringing in skilled workers go through a lot to make it happen. It’s a long and painful process for everybody. And they do it because they don’t have these skills in the USA and that is the truth. It’s not because it’s cheap labour as some people like to believe. Or not true in lots of cases. Why not benefit from the other skilled people living here too? Because we are here. Might as well be doing something useful.
I don’t know what is the case with the rest of the H4s, but I sometimes feel like our talents are being wasted for no reason.
I feel the vibe in this place, where people work somewhere that influences everybody’s lives, and I see them busy and happy and worried and stressed, and I wonder if they know how lucky they are to have a job and being able to make big things happen. Well, I’m sure they do.

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6 thoughts on “An H4 in Silicon Valley

  1. I have two young kids who keep me more than occupied, but I miss the option of working, even part time, or contributing as a professional. I worry that if we stay here too long, I will lose my professional skills and have to retrain. I spent a lot of time studying and now I have to ask for what. I now have to choose between my family and my career. I suppose that is often the case under many circumstances, but it does not feel like a choice when you are an H4. At least the sun shines almost everyday here and we are not struggling financially. But I do wonder what message I am sending my daughter… Study hard, but at the end of the day it the career of your husband that matters. Is this the 21st century?

  2. Thank you Sheena for sharing your thoughts and experience, as well as for raising a very good point! How long can you stay at home without being professionally penalized for that in the future? How far ahead of us will those who are working be? Just how much training will we need to do to catch up when we get back to work?

  3. Hi BP! You have been in this situation for 3 years already? How do you manage to keep your sanity? I find it very hard sometimes, and have only been here for almost 6 months…

  4. Hi, that was 100%true. I am a medical graduate from India. Which means I have a MD degree. I came here in h4 visa. All I have to do is browse aimlessly and ambitiously for some opportunities to make my life productive. It’s been a year since I am in this status. I fight for no reason , I am always depressed. I used to be charming and surrounded always by my cousins and friends back in my country. Here all I have is sit within hour walls. I volunteer 8 am to 8 pm seven days a week just to keep me away from taking bad decision. As empty mind is devil’s hell. You know I was emergency ward medical officer. But I hope everyday that I don’t go there for bad decision. I am doing all this for just my husband because I love him so much that I cannot imagine living away from him.

    1. Hi Primah. Thank you for taking the time to talk about your experience (and I’m sorry it hasn’t been a very good one). I can only imagine how hard it is to have such an active life and suddenly not being able to do it anymore. I had to deal with it and it was maddening at first. It is great that you found volunteering opportunities that keep you busy! That is not always easy. Do you workout? I found that working out really helps me blow off the steam and keep in touch with other people (some of them in the same situation as me). Meeting other H4s also helps. If there is someone who will understand you is another H4. Do you like travelling? Why not do it? You can either invite a friend to join you or you can even go alone (if you like travelling on your own). If you know people in other cities, why not pay them a visit? I’m here for you if you need to talk to someone, just send me an email or something 🙂 Take care!

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