Twelve years after Congress authorized work authorization for the abused spouses of H-1B highly-skilled foreign workers under the aegis of the 2005 Violence Against Women Act, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Feb. 14 rolled out implementation of the initiative.

“USCIS gave a wonderful Valentine’s Day present to abused H-4s,” Indian American immigration attorney Nisha Karnani told India-West. “They can now apply for temporary work authorization to help get shelter and safety for themselves and their kids. Finally, we have a process to use a law enacted 12 years ago,” she said.

The new form – I-765V – is titled, “Application for Employment Authorization for Abused Nonimmigrant Spouse.”

H-4 visas are given to the spouses of H-1B visa holders, highly-skilled workers from abroad. The vast majority of H-1B and H-4 visa holders are from India.

The new rule allows H-4 women who are in an abusive relationship to apply for work authorization, even if they are still in the home of their abusive spouse. It also allows women who have fled abusive relationships to apply.

Significantly, H-4 women who have divorced their abusive spouses can also apply for work authorization for up to two years after the divorce is finalized, said Karnani, who noted that H-4 status ends once a divorce is finalized, thus making the victim undocumented.

“What was happening was that many abusers would threaten their spouses with losing their immigration status if they complained or left the marriage,” she explained to India-West.

In 2015, USCIS rolled out an initiative allowing certain H-4 visa holders – whose spouses were on track for legal permanent residency – to apply for work authorization. The new directive allows abused women to apply, regardless of where their husband stands in attaining legal permanent residency.

“It is very hard for a woman who is not working to pick up and leave an abusive marriage, especially if she has children. Once a work permit arrives, the person could leave home or establish her independence within the relationship,” said Karnani. She added that women are reluctant to call police for fear of losing their immigration status, which is based on their husband’s visa.

The attorney advised abused women who are still living in the abusive home to find a “safe address,” somewhere where documents could be mailed to without the spouse knowing, such as a friend’s home or an attorney’s office.

Work authorization is not a path to permanent residency, cautioned Karnani, adding, however, that once a woman begins working, she might be able to change her status to a more permanent option. The work authorization is good for two years, but can be renewed, she told India-West.

Victims of abuse can also apply for a U visa, a non-immigrant visa for people who have suffered significant physical or mental abuse.

Karnani – who has volunteered since 2001 with the Atlanta, Georgia-based Raksha, a non-profit South Asian women’s advocacy organization; and Aparna Bhattacharya, executive director of Raksha, fought extensively to mobilize USCIS into implementing the policy authorized by Congress in 2005.

One in three women overall are impacted by domestic violence, Bhattacharya told India-West, hazarding the guess that the number could be higher for immigrant women.

Most shelters limit women who are fleeing abusive relationships to three months. “Beyond that, what happens?” queried Bhattacharya, noting that women have to either work under the table, or rely on someone being kind to them, or go back to the abuser. They are then vulnerable to other kinds of victimization, particularly by employers who know they are ineligible to work, she said.

One woman she worked with had been forced by her family into marrying a man she did not know; her spouse quickly became abusive. She fled to shelter but had to move around because of limitations on length of stay, said Bhattacharya.

Some shelters were impatient with the woman, asking why she couldn’t just work under the table, noted the women’s rights advocate.

Bhattacharya said there is no guarantee the new initiative will continue to be protected under the new Trump administration, which has set higher priorities for deportation.

Raksha currently serves about 400 women per year.

Raksha, along with Chicago-based Apna Ghar, and the South Asian Bar Association jointly issued a press statement Feb. 22, heralding the USCIS move.

“This is a celebrated example of how our immigration laws are used to help, not ignore or harm the most vulnerable domestic violence survivors in the United States. VAWA is a critical, lifesaving protective option and takes into account the unique experiences of immigrant survivors,” said Neha Gill, executive director of Apna Ghar, a social service agency.

Kalpana Peddibhotla, co-chair of SABA’s Immigration Committee, stated: “We urge the Administration to continue taking steps to protect the most vulnerable immigrants in the United States and to empower them to contribute to the economy, rather than implementing counter-productive measures that harm them and do not increase our security.”

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