Indian women isolated in Silicon Valley
BY Anastasia Ustinova, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008
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Reema Shahani, 26, who holds a master’s degree in human rights, fills her day looking for recipes online.
Varkha Chellani, 37, a former credit analyst, keeps herself busy taking care of two children.
And former computer programmer Gomathy Kannan, 25, is taking dancing classes and writing a blog.
Shahani, Chellani and Kannan are among the thousands of women who came to the United States on the coattails of their husbands’ H-1B visas, granted to highly skilled professionals to fill jobs at the software companies and technology labs of Silicon Valley. But under the conditions of their H-4 dependent visas, spouses are not allowed to work here. Often highly educated and skilled, they find themselves in the uncomfortable position of social and financial dependency on their husbands, while struggling to adjust to life in a new country.
The State Department issued more than 135,000 H-1B visas in 2006, together with about 74,000 H-4 visas for their spouses. A lot of the H-1B visas go to workers in Silicon Valley: The area’s companies employ about 35,000 H-1B holders, estimates the Silicon Valley Indian Professionals Association. And the majority are workers from Asia, according to the Department of Homeland Security – nearly 45 percent of all H-1B petitions approved in fiscal year 2005 were for workers born in India.
In Silicon Valley, many of the Indian women’s stories are similar. Most were born into higher castes in India, graduated with college degrees in computer science or business, worked in fast-paced companies, had a support network of friends and family. Moving to the United States seemed like a great opportunity, but all too often there was little discussion about the terms of their immigration status. Now, while their husbands are climbing the career ladder, they stay at home alone, isolated.
“There is a high level of depression in that community because those women are not integrating into society by working, and it prolongs the homesickness,” said immigration lawyer Shivali Shah, who did a survey of 100 H-4 holders. “They usually arrive during their prime working years, and it is very demoralizing for them.”
Reema Shahani swapped the turmoil of city life in Delhi for a quiet suburban apartment in Santa Clara.
While her husband has a thriving career in a giant high-tech company, Shahani spends her days browsing the Internet and watching the Food Network. When she arrived in 2006, she did not have a driver’s license and her world was reduced to the size of a two-bedroom apartment.
“It is really sad. You sit alone the whole day and don’t do anything,” Shahani said. “I would always tell my husband, ‘Why should I be here? It’s a complete waste of my time.’ “
After the first year, frustrated with the monotony of her new life, Shahani began volunteering at the Indian Community Center in Milpitas, where she met other women in the same situation.
Many women prefer the immigration forums and chat rooms on the Internet, where they can pour their hearts out anonymously. Malathy Jey, founder of Indusladies.com, a networking site for Indian women based in Austin, Texas, estimates that her site receives about 2 million page views a month.
Jey, 32, who worked as an IT specialist for Ford Motor Co. in Chennai, India, before moving to Austin on an H-4 visa with her husband, said she came up with the idea for the Web site during long days spent at home looking for things to do.
Indusladies.com offers relationship advice and recipes, as well as the opportunity for women to share their frustrations with the immigration process.
“I got married to an H-1B visa holder, which put me in H-4 visa status – yes, that dreaded H-4,” wrote one of the users. “Being H-4, I can’t work or earn a single dollar and all I can do is stay at home and stare at the four walls.”
While couples can apply for permanent residency, or a green card, which would allow the dependent spouse to work, the process can take years, and Indian and Chinese immigrants face annual quotas set by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“I’ve gone through my ups and downs and was even regretting being here,” said Varkha Chellani, who has been waiting for seven years for a green card, while her friends achieve career success in India.
Chellani, who brings her 2-year-old daughter Vidhi to weekly play dates at the community center, is interested in early childhood education and has been volunteering at the center developing classroom curriculum for the kids. She would like to go back to school, she said, but paying tuition while living on one income and supporting two kids is a challenge.
Volunteering is another common strategy for the women, who are afraid future employers are going to question gaps in their resumes, and many local nonprofit groups are taking notice, said John Power, executive director of the matching service Thevolunteercenter.net, which works with agencies in San Francisco and San Mateo counties.
“They are individuals who have had a professional background and are looking for some proper ways to continue their careers,” Power said. “It’s very desirable to find people with such skills, and the potential benefit is huge.”
Some women, including Kannan, who sometimes had to stay in the office in Chennai until 3 a.m., see their H-4 status as an opportunity to take a break and do the things they never had time for, such as painting or dancing. Kannan, however, also volunteers as a computer specialist at the Indian Community Center once a week.
“It really helps me to do something useful,” Kannan said. Her husband agrees.
“He feels that I should be working with the technology. Otherwise I will be lagging behind.”
Skilled visa holders 135,000 approximate number of H-1B visas issued by the State Department in 2006
74,000 approximate number H-4 visas for spouses issued the same year
35,000 approximate number of H-1B workers in Silicon Valley area companies
E-mail Anastasia Ustinova at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle.