The Land of Blood & Money

Foreign workers coming into the country for high-paying tech jobs often bring wives with them. When these women are beaten and abused, they have nowhere to run.

Pomeli finally ran away from her husband on October 7, 1997. "The night I left him, it was the worst beating," she recalls, her voice unwavering. "He tried to choke me, my face was bloated, I had marks on my neck ...."

A petite woman with bright eyes hidden behind large glasses, Pomeli says she was talking on the phone with a friend when her husband flew into one of his "inhuman rages" that night. Suddenly, he had her by her wavy black hair, and was dragging her from room to room in their South Bay apartment. Blood clots were already developing on her back when he threw her into the bedroom. He strangled her as she dangled half-on and half-off the bed. Her face was swollen from the slaps, and he continued to choke her until she passed out. Regaining consciousness, she reached for the phone and tried to call 911, but her husband's anger boiled over again. He snatched the phone from her hands, and continued to slap and strangle her.

The couple's 5-year-old daughter watched the entire thing.

Mukta Sharangpani is often the voice of comfort on the phone when victims of domestic abuse call Maitri for help.
Paul Trapani
Mukta Sharangpani is often the voice of comfort on the phone when victims of domestic abuse call Maitri for help.

Pomeli, 31, blinks slowly. "No, I don't want to recall it," she says. The police arrived that October night after neighbors called for help, and Pomeli admitted aloud for the first time that her husband beat her. Though she remained too frightened to press charges, she knew she had to leave him.

"It was like an animal instinct; I knew if I stayed here, next time I would be dead," says Pomeli, who agreed to tell her story only if her name was not published.

Leaving an abusive spouse is never easy. Statistics show that most domestic violence victims try to leave their batterers seven times before escaping for good. But for Pomeli, the decision was even more wrenching, and more fraught with danger.

Pomeli's husband was one of the legions of foreign software engineers brought to Silicon Valley in recent years on temporary work visas to feed the high-tech industry's insatiable appetite for skilled labor. That meant Pomeli, a native of India, was allowed into the country solely because she was married to him. She was entirely dependent on her husband for money, a place to live, and her very right to be on U.S. soil.

When her husband began beating her, Pomeli found herself among an unusual -- but growing -- class of battered women for which the law offers little recourse, and whose delicate immigration status leaves them all but stranded in a country where they have few legal rights, and fewer options. For these battered spouses, fleeing to save their own lives can be a virtual impossibility.

Simply by leaving her husband, Pomeli violated the terms of her temporary visa, and could be deported at any moment. If she were sent back to India, her husband could easily have kept their daughter here. If she tried to stay in the U.S. with her daughter, she could not legally hold a job to support herself, nor was she eligible for any public benefits.

If she filed criminal charges against her husband, she would only put herself in greater peril; if he lost his job, she would lose any possibility of financial support, and increase her own chances of being deported.

More and more women are finding themselves in the untenable position that confronted Pomeli.

After U.S. companies began aggressively recruiting foreign workers a few years ago, a strain of domestic abuse emerged for which no government agency was prepared. Many workers with H-1B work visas bring their wives with them to the United States. And if these foreign workers beat their wives, U.S. law leaves the women almost completely defenseless.

"We have seen cases like this with women from all different backgrounds that come here on [temporary] visas as a spouse or family member of someone coming here to work because of the tech boom," explains Beckie Masaki of the Asian Women's Shelter in San Francisco. "When these women experience domestic violence, they really have no recourse, because their immigration status depends on the person who is here on the work visa. And when that person is abusive, she feels trapped."

In the tech-consumed Bay Area, where a majority of the workers allowed into the country on H-1B visas end up, domestic violence among temporary residents has become a pronounced problem.

Maitri, a Sunnyvale organization that works with South Asian women, has seen a steady rise in these types of cases in the past few years. Now, nearly half of its 30 new cases each month involve women who are here on temporary visas as spouses of H-1B visa workers.

The true extent of the problem cannot be accurately gauged. The INS says it does not keep track of how many foreign workers are charged with, or deported for, domestic violence. The agency says it does not even keep statistics on how many spouses come into the country with H-1B workers each year.

And as many social workers know, domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes in the country. Experts estimate that there are 10 hidden cases of spousal abuse for every one that is reported to authorities. Women from some foreign countries are even less likely to report abuse. Not only do they risk impoverishment and deportation, but they often come from cultures that assign blame and shame to the victims of domestic violence.

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