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Life Takes Visa

In one deft three-second move, her small fingers stretch and twist a length of white cotton thread into a Y shape between her two hands and mouth. In the next five minutes, Shilpi Goel’s fingers work the twist in the thread like miniature shears and snip away at the pair of bushy eyebrows facing her. The thread goes “krrrp krrp krrrp,” and tiny eyebrow hairs fall away, leaving behind two gorgeous arches. As her client—one of her 300 regulars—pays her and leaves, Goel greets another by her first name and invites her to the beautician’s chair. As Goel positions herself behind a black all-purpose salon chair, she finds herself in a place quite removed from where she stood a few years ago.

Eight years back Goel, a science methodology graduate and doctorate student, stood as a teacher in front of a class of undergraduate students in an Indian university. In the next few years she planned to earn a doctorate, get a better teaching job and get married. Eight months into her career, marriage happened and 24-year-old Goel got ready to travel half way across the globe, to California, with her new husband—a software engineer.

“I probably didn’t think about it too much,” she says, “it” meaning how she would continue her career in America. In the flurry of wedding preparations and festivities, other thoughts and concerns took center stage as they do in many Indian marriages, says Goel.

Goel, like thousands of young Indian brides, came to America on an H-4 visa as a dependent of her husband, who is on H-1B, or work, visa. She willingly left behind her family, social circle of friends and colleagues to be with her husband in an alien land.

Dependents like Goel do not have a legal status in America separate from their spouses. Nor are they allowed to work. American immigration law places people on H-4 visa—in most cases women—in a situation of social, legal and financial dependence, and in this case, absolute dependency.

American immigration has historically made spouses and children totally dependent on the citizen or lawful permanent resident family member, says Leslye E. Orloff of Legal Momentum, an organization that furthers the rights of women through law and public policy.

It evolves from coverture, a system in which married women are regarded to be under the authority and protection of the husband. In other words, the husband legally owned his wife and children. It was only in the 1950s that female U.S. citizens could legally file immigration papers for their foreign spouses.

The total dependency of the spouse entering America on an H-4 visa is a continuation of this bias, Orloff explains. Women rely on family members to apply for immigration status on a much larger number than men. For instance, 69 percent of all female lawful permanent residents obtained their legal status through family based immigration, she says.

Women are 38 percent more likely than men to gain legal permanent status through family-based immigration. Men are 212 percent more likely to be the principle visa holder in an employment-based visa than women. The men on employment visas, who bring their wives with them, enter an immigration system that gives them control of the women, according to Orloff.

What worsens the situation is that many women who immigrate on H-4 visas fail to inform themselves properly of their impending legal and financial dependency. There are no governmental or counseling organizations in countries such as India to advise prospective H-4 visa holders of the full implication of their H-4 status—which is appalling given that India exports H-1B workers and their spouses by the thousands to America.

Thus women on H-4 visas, who were previously in jobs or in school and were socially active, find themselves suddenly isolated in America and struggle to come to terms with their new reality.

Goel found herself getting bored after the first couple of months. Without an income of her own, she was hesitant to spend money on canvas and paints for her painting hobby.

“I was getting frustrated. My husband would tell me what to do and what not to do. If I go to the mall and buy something, he’d fault me by saying I didn’t get the best deal. ‘Respect the money,’ he would say.”

“It is not that he is not caring. But we used to get into a lot of arguments around that time,” she says. “We’d bought a house close to our first [wedding] anniversary. We were totally out of money and I felt I was not contributing.”

But Goel’s problems are small compared to what some other women face.

Maitri, a Bay Area non-profit that helps South Asian families facing domestic violence and other issues, says 50 percent of the women it serves are on H-4 visa. Of them, 90 percent are domestic abuse cases and 10 are percent cultural displacement or isolation cases, says Mukta Sharangpani, Maitri president.

The inability to work while on a H-4 visa is a hurdle to anyone who intends to have a career post-marriage. But those in abusive situations feel the inability to work more painfully than others, according to Kiran, a North Carolina-based domestic violence help group for South Asians.

In a majority of cases, at least five years go by before the spouse on the H-4 visa gets a work permit, and this interruption in his or her career marks the end of one for many. But in many instances adversity also spurs creativity and enterprise.

Dance and music schools open up in small living rooms in rented apartments. Expert cooks prepare dishes in their 6-by-12 kitchens and supply it to stores and restaurants. Friends baby-sit other friends’ babies for small discreet payments in cash. Some women volunteer at unpaid jobs. Others welcome this break to have and raise children. Going back to school is something a lot of these women consider. But many single-income families decide that it is not worth spending money on expensive two-and-three-year courses for the wife when her work permit is five years away. Families with children may not be able to afford it, period. But those who can, enroll in school.

That’s what Goel did. When she found out that completing a Master’s program required passing the GRE exam plus three to four years in school, she dropped that idea. Encouraged by her husband, she attended ESL and American Business classes. She joined HTML, Visual Basic, Unix and Database Programming classes in the hopes of joining the software bandwagon. When she struggled through her C and C+ programming classes, she realized she didn’t want to do any of that.

But it wasn’t long before she found out what she could do. It was during one of her regular get-togethers with friends that one of them commented on how she had to go all the way from San Mateo to Sunnyvale to get her eyebrows threaded into shape. “I can do it for you,” said Goel at once, falling back on the skill she picked up during the summers she spent at her aunt’s beauty salon in India. Goel took an hour to shape her friend’s eyebrows. “I was slow, but I did it right,” she says about shaping her first pair in America. Her thrilled friend then asked, “Why don’t you start a salon?”

Bushy brows are aplenty, the friend assured. But Goel wasn’t sure yet. So her husband put an ad in his office’s online mailing list to see if there were any takers. Within a day, they got nearly 40 responses. Apparently there was a lot of facial hair that needed to be taken care of. Goel decided to take the plunge and started inviting her friends and their friends over so she could practice on their eyebrows. And they were only too happy to indulge her. Soon she could design a pair of eyebrows within 20 minutes.

She decided to take her beautician skills up a notch and enrolled in a two and a half year Cosmetology course at College of San Mateo. In 2003, four years after she landed in America, her work permit was approved. As she began classes, she was shaping at least 10 pairs of eyebrows a day. Her popularity was growing. Soon she could shape a pair of eyebrows under 10 minutes. In 2004 Goel, armed with a license to kill scraggly eyebrows, started her first beautician’s job in America. Now she rents a space at My Fair Lady Beauty Salon in Foster City.

“You just do a thorough job,” says first-time customer Anjali Shah, who heard of Goel from a colleague. Gita Chandra, Goel’s friend and eyebrow patron since 2000 agrees. Though Goel makes just enough money to rent a salon space and pay her twin daughters’ babysitter, she says she loves her job. “I love it that I get so much praise for my work. I get to meet so many people—I have a huge social circle,” she says. “I got 120 sets of baby clothes as gifts from my clients when my twins were born. I love the feeling that people love me so much.”

Goel found a way to trump her situation—one that limited and isolated her and hundreds of women like her to this day. Goel says she gets more respect from her family and husband now. Her new career gives her the satisfaction of supporting her family and more control over monetary decisions. And she is confident in running a successful salon on her own in a few years. The seventh client in 45 minutes takes her seat on the salon chair. As the mistress of eyebrow-design moves her fingers and wrists, the thread dances on the lady’s brows and transforms them from shaggy to shapely.