H-4 visa holders and those who have fallen out of H-4 status can now apply for work authorization in the U.S., if they are victims of domestic violence, announced U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in a memo released Mar. 8.

H-4 visas are allotted to the spouses of H-1B – foreign skilled labor – visa holders. The visa is also given to the spouses of some temporary guest-workers. Spouses of H-3 visa holders – those in specialty training programs in the U.S. – may also receive an H-4 visa.

Approximately 80 percent of H-4 visa holders are from South Asian countries, primarily India. Many have skill levels equivalent to their spouses, but until last May, H-4 visa holders were not allowed to work in the U.S. But USCIS issued a memo last May, which allowed H-4 visa holders – whose spouses had applied for green cards for permanent status in the U.S. – to apply for work authorization. More than 180,000 people – largely women – were eligible to apply.

Indian American immigration attorney Nisha Karnani told India-West that the rule was authorized in 2005 — as a portion of the Violence Against Women Act — but took more than 10 years to implement.

Even with the issuance of the USCIS memo, a date has not yet been set as to when the application form – I-765v, which will allow battered women to apply for work authorization — will be released, according to Karnani.

Eligible applicants include — among others — current H-4 visa holders or those who have fallen out of H-4 status because of divorce or the death of their spouse. Applicants will have to show credible proof of abuse, such as police reports, psychological evaluations, or statements from people aware of the situation, such as a domestic violence shelter worker.

“It can be challenging,” said Karnani, noting that immigrant women in abusive marriages are often terrified of calling the police, for fear of losing their immigration status or their children. Abusive spouses often use immigration status as a tool of abuse, she stated, saying that abused spouses often do not have access to their identity documents. Many abusive husbands will apply for their own green card but not one for their wife, unbeknownst to the spouse, said Karnani, who is a volunteer with Raksha, an Atlanta, Georgia-based women’s empowerment organization.

Karnani credited Raksha’s executive director Aparna Bhattacharyya for keeping the issue on the front-burner for policy-makers over the past decade.

H-4 visa holders who have divorced their abusive husbands lose their H-4 status and are technically undocumented. But the new memo allows them to apply for work authorization for up to two years after the divorce, if they can prove that the divorce was linked to an abusive relationship, explained Karnani. Work authorization does not change their underlying immigration status – they would still remain undocumented – “but does allow them to remain on their feet,” said the attorney, adding that the work permit is renewable after two years.

Work authorization is not a path to a green card, however, clarified Karnani.

H-4 spouses who are separated from their abusive partners are also eligible to apply.

“Giving a victim of abuse a work permit is a very powerful tool for safety and healing. Some of our most vulnerable community members will be affected,” Karnani told India-West, adding: “This presents them with a tremendous opportunity to leave an abusive home.”

Tejas Shah, co-chair of the immigration committee for the South Asian Bar Association of North America, hailed the new USCIS directive. “Many Indian American women tend to view divorce as a last resort, no matter what the circumstances,” he told India-West. “This allows them to qualify for work authorization while they are still married,” said Shah, noting that economic independence can empower an abused spouse to finally leave her situation.

Shah said the new directive was a positive move, but did not go far enough to ensure permanent status in the U.S. for victims of domestic violence. The attorney said he hopes to see a pathway to a green card for victims of abuse.

Various reports released last year predicted that allowing certain H-4 visa holders to work could add an estimated $62 billion to the U.S. economy over the next two decades.

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