A briefing paper prepared by Pallavi Banerjee, University of Calgary, for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).

Imagine thousands of highly qualified women forced to stay home because they are not legally allowed to work. Sounds unreal in this day and age, right? And yet this has been the reality for many women who have legally migrated to the US on what are popularly known as dependent visas or H-4 visas. These are visas given to spouses and children of workers who migrate to the U.S. on H-1B visas to work in a “specialty occupation,” mostly in science, technology and engineering fields. The H-4 dependent visa forbids the spouse of a skilled worker to engage in legal employment for a term that could be as long as 20 years. These visas disproportionately affect Asian migrant families in the U.S., given that more half of the H-1B and H-4 visas go to Indians, followed by Chinese.

Dependent H-4 visas were originally designed with women in mind, as the extension of the 18th-19th century coverture doctrine that a wife had no legal identity outside that of her husband. The doctrine was generally accepted until the late 20th century in accord with the male-breadwinner ideology of the 1950s in the US. However, the law in itself is not gendered. This means that men as well as women can be excluded from the labor market if they come in with a spouse who is on an H-1B visa. In practice, women are the majority of those affected. But either way, these policies leave lasting imprints, although in distinctly gendered ways, on the lives of spouses who come in with one H-1B and one H-4 visa holder. Families where the woman is dependent on the man have to live like 1950s nuclear families, even though many women are qualified to be co-providers and would prefer to be. In families where the man is excluded from the labor force, by contrast, gender power struggles within the families assume difficult and complex forms, generating ambivalence in both the working and the stay-at-home spouse.

Trailing wives and the reinvention of dependence.

Because the most common recipients of H-1B visas are male high-tech workers, women (their wives) are disproportionally affected by these policies. Approximately 80 percent of all H-4 visa holders are women, most of whom are highly-educated and were working before migration. A “housewife visa” or “vegetable visa,” as many of the dependent wives call the H-4 visa, forces these wives to become economically, socially, and psychologically dependent on husbands. My interviews with these women revealed that they experienced a loss of dignity and an increase in self-deprecation. They tried to cope by engaging in excessive cooking, cleaning, and decorating while also resenting it. These women told me they felt they were back in the days of the “traditional family” where women had no identity of their own and were devalued in society. They talked about being rendered invisible and feeling shackled and depressed. Some even reported contemplating suicide. In situations of domestic violence, women in such circumstances have no means to leave and support themselves. Accordingly, some women describe these visas as “prison visas.”

Trailing husbands and the loss of status.

Relatively few men are on the H-4 visas, and typically these are the husbands of women who were granted work visas because of their training as nurses. Such men report a complicated relationship with their dependent status. While most claim to enjoy raising children as an equal caregiver with their wives, the loss of their culturally normalized head-of-household status leaves them sore and resentful. In order to compensate for this loss, dependent husbands find multiple ways to reassert their masculinities. For instance, they emphasize how they “allowed” their wives to be the main migrant. They also skirt around doing any of the everyday housework and control the family finances, while invoking the imagery of the “sacrificial father” who gave up his career “to ensure the well-being of the children and family.” Meanwhile, the breadwinning wives overcompensate for being the breadwinner by doing all household chores.

Executive Orders from Obama to Trump.

In 2015 Obama responded to research and a spurt of online activism around the issue of legal dependence by signing an Executive Order that made it possible for H-4 visa holders to obtain Employment Authorization Documents after being approved for permanent residency. H-4 visa holders without permanent residency approval remained stranded. But the EO did have positive effects on the lives of 179,600 spouses that year, and 55,000 additional spouses in subsequent years, as estimated by USCIS. Many H-4 visa holders attempted to return to work. Some with specialized degrees found work quickly. Others found it difficult to find jobs, as is common for women with a long employment hiatus. However, what was important is now they had the opportunity to look for work legally.

The Trump administration, by contrast, has announced its intent has to implement the Buy American and Hire American Executive Order. This will revoke the employment authorization for H-4 visa holders, threatening economic and family stability for many and perpetuating gendered dependencies and conflicts within and outside the families. These apparently gender-neutral visa policies harm women and men alike, by imposing either a male breadwinner family that subordinates women or a female breadwinner family that leads to ambivalence, resentment and conflict.


Pallavi Banerjee, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary, Canada, and author of forthcoming Dismantling Dependence: Gendered Migrations, Indian High-Skilled Families and the Visa Regime (NYU Press)Prof. Banerjee’s research on H-4 visa played a critical role in the Obama Administration’s reformulation of those rules. pallavi.banerjee@ucalgary.ca. Professor Banerjee is author with Raewyn Connell of “Gender Theory as a Southern Theory” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender.