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An Unsteadiness of Self: Marriage and Immigration in Authoritarian Times

Marriage and Immigration in Authoritarian Times

He got the job offer on a Thursday. We were married at the county clerk’s office the following Wednesday. There was no wedding, no time to invite family or friends, except my partner’s co-worker who graciously came on his lunch break to serve as our witness. I met him for the first time as we were signing the marriage licence. I bristled when asked over the next weeks if I had changed my name, though this was less bothersome than relatives who assumed I had. No one ever asked this question of Zack. My standard answer became: “Neither of us changed our names,” with the added emphasis.

The day after we arrived in London from California, my new husband (it still sounds strange to me) was already in the office. I had plenty of my own work to do, a PhD thesis to return to after the chaos of moving abroad for the long-term. I am quite experienced in picking up and moving to places thousands of miles from ‘home,’ sometimes suddenly and often solo. On any given day it is not unusual for me to talk with friends and colleagues spanning four different time zones, and at least three continents.

So why did I feel rudderless and lonely now? Something had shifted without my permission, but it was hard for me to articulate what and why. In many ways we have a best-case scenario: Because we married, I’m allowed to stay in the same country as my partner. I have the right to work (though I remain anxious about how much cachet this permit carries as “Hard Brexit” looms). The prospect of spending indefinite years with the man who is now my husband doesn’t scare me either. He’s a feminist with emotional range, and we’ve completed almost five years of adventuring together – plenty to know that this relationship has legs. But before the prospect of immigration forced our hand, neither of us had been totally sold on marriage as an institution. Zack even suggested (jokingly but sincerely) that we could divorce after returning to the States if we wanted.

But the ‘dependent’ part of my visa still bothers me. Even though the comparison is uneven, when recently reading about the spouses of H1-B ‘skilled guest worker’ visa holders, certain themes resonate with me. These women discuss how it was not just their CVs that suffered from the forced career break – until 2015, spouses on restrictive H-4 paperwork were forbidden from pursuing employment in the U.S. – but that their core sense of self took a hit.

Interestingly, those affected have substantially been Indian women. In 2015, 90% of H-4 visas, the category American immigration assigns to immediate family of H1-B visa holders, were issued to women. 80% of all H-4 visas issued in the U.S. were granted to Indian passport holders. This is the story Jhumpa Lahiri tells in her novel The Namesake through Ashima’s struggles in Massachusetts, and the tale that features more recently in Aziz Ansari’s brilliant TV series Master of None. Asked what she did on her first day in the U.S., after immigrating for her husband’s medical career, the mother of Ansari’s character Dev answers that she “sat on the couch and cried”.

Marriage and Immigration in Authoritarian Times
A still from ‘Master of None’ 

The problem is still relevant for recent H-4 spouses. Many report that their new dependence on their partners for virtually all social and economic needs has jarring effects on their mental, emotional, and sexual health. Depression and suicidal thoughts are not uncommon, nor are “marital problems stemming from financial insecurities in a single-income household, and even domestic abuse” for which women may have extra difficulty seeking help since support networks, money, and legal standing highly depend on their relationship with the person abusing them. Some resort to having babies as the only ‘productive’ thing they can do under the circumstances, even if motherhood had not previously been a priority, compromising their freedom to decide when – and if – to become a parent.

The 2015 ruling on H-4 right to work was just a beginning, and a flawed one. It still determines employment authorisation eligibility based on the H1-B visa holder’s green card application status, not on the spouse’s own qualifications. It has been far from an easy or transparent process. Yet it was a crucial reprieve for many women, psychologically and financially. In an interview following the change in regulations, journalist Neha Mahajan celebrated the ruling as signifying the first time in her seven years in the U.S. when she could get back to her “real self. I will no longer be my husband’s wife only.”

My situation is different but I can relate to the dampening of confidence and sense of autonomy when your partner has a purpose and source of validation in the host country that you lack. There’s been, if not a ‘loss’, a new unsteadiness of self as I confront complicated feelings of being a wife when I had not prepared to be, in a country that I am allowed to call home only because of the accomplishments of my husband and the grace of his employer. In the dynamic relationship of sexuality and self-care, when the means through which you normally nurture yourself and find fulfilment suddenly change, it can be hard to communicate desires and set boundaries in a satisfactory way, or even to want to. Being less sure how you feel about yourself, sexuality too is disrupted.

Adding to this dissociation, the U.S. has not been in a good place. Along with much of the world, I absorb the North American news cycle feverishly, yet slightly out of pace from my time zone. I scan the screen as if searching the weathered face of a person who has been sick for a long time. The illness has long been evident, in chalk outlines on asphalt around black bodies left to go cold, but the disease is not yet terminal. It is toxic to be so immersed, and though I’m familiar with the rules of self-care as “political warfare,”  that love itself is an act of resistance, I struggle with the question of how best to offer love from here. My body is not on the line.

I worry about the discrimination and cruelty that are being normalised, in overt ways like the Muslim travel ban (which it is, no matter what the administration says, since incoherent ‘religious tests’ are now involved). We see the ‘banality of evil’ unfolding in real time as ordinary people gamely follow outrageous orders, or are themselves too vulnerable to refuse them. But I also worry that in the race to fight the most pressing crises, we will lose focus on other needed reforms of long-running patriarchal and racist practices, such as the H-4 restrictions, and allow the needle to move steadily backward. This is the brilliance of salami tactics, a strategy with many aliases authoritarians use to divide and exhaust the opposition. Going forward, it will likely be difficult to bring attention to injustices that are less topical in the “accelerated metabolism” of journalism that gasps for air in the orange haze of ‘alternative facts’ and gross incompetence. Triage is the new normal.

The H1-B program itself is now in the crosshairs. The proposed crackdown on this visa category is a less-publicised aspect of this government’s pivot on immigration that nevertheless has thrown lakhs of lives into uncertainty. If a ‘compromise’ is reached on H-1B, which is likely given that more than 100 tech companies have joined together to rebuke the administration’s immigration policies, it would not surprise me in the least if it upheld the executive order’s revocation of H-4 spouses’ right to work. Thousands of women now stand to lose a hard-won reprieve from dependence. This is unjust in itself, but is also symptomatic of resurgent xenophobia and isolationism in the U.S. that should concern all of us.

All of this leaves me feeling quite apprehensive as to what kind of country we might eventually return to. But in the meantime, I have to balance attentiveness to one home with investing in where I am now. I work, I write. I muffle my social anxiety to make small talk with strangers and to spark existing acquaintances into more durable friendships. I take delight in small victories, and all the weird and wonderful that comes from learning a new city and country. I steady myself, and prepare for what’s next.

Cover image by Murad Osmann