Opinion: Women abandoned by husbands deserve to reclaim their stability, children and human rights

The story was originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune with support from our 2022 Impact Reporting Fund

What does a domestic violence survivor do if she is still legally married in India but divorced in America?

As the American dream comes true for Indian-born CEOs and a highly educated, Indian-immigrant workforce, in the shadow of that model minority narrative lies a darker tale of abuse: transnational abandonment — one of the most sinister and damaging forms of domestic abuse perpetrated on immigrant women.

Abusive husbands abandon dependent wives, often in their country of origin, and take advantage of United States immigration laws to deliberately strip them of status and safety nets. These women lose legal protections, rights to their homes, finances and their U.S.-born children, and are trapped in legal limbo.

The tech sector is one that sponsors its foreign-born workforce with the H-1B program. Worker’s spouses arrive in the U.S. on temporary, non-immigrant H-4 visas. This status makes them wholly dependent on their employed partner for their very existence in this country.

When the H-1B program was suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Indian expatriates in Silicon Valley lost jobs, exacerbating the domestic violence crisis. A United Nations survey reported that domestic violence spiked among women of color by 33 percent globally during the pandemic, with 31 percent of women reporting an increase in violence.

An image of Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal

During the pandemic, Narika, a Bay Area organization confronting domestic violence in South Asian communities, reported an 86 percent increase in domestic violence clients and two to three cases of transnational abandonment a week.

The phenomenon of transnational abandonment is disturbingly prevalent in arranged marriages among Indian Americans when traditional families, blinded by the American dream, orchestrate arranged marriages between their daughters and Indian men working in America.

If a marriage collapses, H-1B holder husbands can discard wives by simply withdrawing their H-4 status to make their residency illegal. Unless these women file police complaints about domestic violence — and few do — their husbands can divorce them and withhold their resources.

Abusers exploit this loophole in the law with impunity.

Anjali Kour, a Bay Area survivor, told us in an interview in 2021 that her husband dumped her in India and secretly filed for divorce in the U.S. He threatened her with deportation if she tried to return. The ultimate goal was to get rid of her legally, and not be liable to pay her a dime.

She said he took her son in the middle of the night, filed for divorce and took custody of him in the U.S., so she lost her H-4 status and her child.

“You are nothing without your H-1B visa holder,” she told us. “Everything is in the hands of your H-1B visa holder.”

That means your social security number, your medical insurance, your driver’s license, your bank account, your lifelines.

Narika’s executive director Bindu Oommen Fernandes said it sometimes feels like these men know how to play the system.

When their husbands withdraw every available safety net, survivors face unimaginable trauma.

Rennu Dhillon, an outspoken survivor and advocate based in the Bay Area, told us, “I think I became powerless in this country because I knew nobody and had no immigration status.”

It’s the chokehold of immigration policy and transnational jurisdictions that traps survivors in legal limbo.

In the U.S., the practice is underreported, leading to a glaring lack of disaggregated data, and to victims being unseen by policy-making audiences.

In 2019 alone, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs logged nearly 4,000 official complaints about marital abuse and abandonment, and that may be an undercount. The government of India estimates that as many as 30,000 women of Indian origin may have been abandoned in this manner.

An image of Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney

Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney

In India, the “Registration of Marriage of Non-Resident Indians” bill, sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs, went to the Indian Parliament in 2019 to support stranded Indian citizen spouses. The bill would impound the passports of non-resident Indian spouses who fail to register their marriage within 30 days. An Indian national cannot legally remain in the United States without a passport. Other recommendations include signing bilateral treaties with foreign governments to grant visa extensions for Indian nationals deserted by their spouses. A visa extension gives the abandoned spouse both time and legal standing to fight her case abroad. Unfortunately, the bill is still under consideration in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s Parliament.

But court decisions in India don’t help women in the U.S. courts.

So what does a survivor do if she is divorced in the United States but still legally married in India?

Without money or lawyers, she falls through the cracks between family and immigration law. She cannot represent herself in U.S. courts to fight for her rights, a U-Visa or protection under the Violence Against Women Act. She loses U.S.-citizen children because family courts award custody to the legal immigrant spouse.

U.S. law cannot be changed for foreign nationals. But a solution does exist.

U.S. immigration law grants Temporary Protected Status to foreign nationals in the U.S. who face extraordinary and temporary conditions if forced to return home, and victimization of women by transnational abandonment certainly fits this category. If the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would grant Temporary Protected Status work permits to abandoned H-4 visa survivors, it would give them time to gather resources and get their lives back on track. It would allow them back in the country to fight for their financial rights and child custody.

Justice is out of reach today, but abandoned survivors deserve to fully reclaim their stability, their children and their human rights.