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.
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.
There is currently nothing in U.S. law that addresses domestic abuse in the house- holds of these temporary U.S. residents. Community organizations and immigration attorneys throughout the Bay Area — and across the country — say that they are hearing more and more often from women trapped in abusive situations. And there is little that can be done to help them.
As frayed as the safety net may be for battered spouses in general, the wives of temporary workers have virtually no protection. Women like Pomeli are suspended between countries, with no place to land safely. [page]
Though select foreign workers have been allowed into the country for decades, the H-1B visa category was established under the Immigration Act of 1990 to bring in foreign workers for “specialty occupations” — engineers, architects, doctors, and, of course, fashion models. American employers say the country's strong economy has led to a shortage of qualified workers, and have aggressively recruited skilled help from overseas.
In 1998, the number of H-1B visas granted to foreign workers jumped from 65,000 to 115,000, and two bills pending in Congress would increase the numbers even more for 2001. This year, the INS stopped accepting applications for H-1B visas by March — six months before the year's filing cutoff date.
Though exact numbers are not kept, it is clear that most of these foreign workers are being recruited by Silicon Valley companies for high-tech jobs, says INS spokesperson Eileen Schmidt.
For an American company to sponsor a foreign worker on an H-1B visa, it must file a petition and pay up to $610 in fees to the INS. The foreign worker must have at least a bachelor's degree or work experience in a specialty occupation.
Spouses and children of the foreign worker automatically qualify to come to the U.S. on H-4 visas, a non-immigrant dependent visa. The legal status of someone entering the country on an H-4 visa is completely dependent on the family member with the H-1B visa. The H-4 visa holders are forbidden to work themselves, and because they are temporary residents they do not qualify for public benefits.
A vast majority of these foreign workers are recruited from Asia, with Indians making up 46 percent. The rush to bring in foreign-born, mostly male, and mostly Asian workers has spawned a subculture of bachelorhood and material wealth that has been documented in newspaper feature articles and Michael Lewis' book The New New Thing.
Within the South Asian community, especially, many well-trained young engineers are recruited on H-1B visas to work at high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. But Mukta Sharangpani, who works with battered South Asian women at Maitri, says the H-1B visa process has created an immigration trend that actually fosters domestic violence.
Sharangpani says that while in the country on H-1B visas — which usually last between three and six years — many South Asian workers ask for vacation time to go back to their home countries for arranged marriages. Sharangpani explains that for these men, having an H-1B visa is a status symbol — it means that they have a well-paying job in America. But for the South Asian bride, it means severing social ties by moving to a foreign country soon after she gets married.
“The arranged marriage system has a lot to do with it,” adds Dimple Malhotra of Mountain View's Domestic Violence Support Network. “I'm not saying it doesn't work, but there's an unequal power dynamic to it, and nothing creates a domestic violence situation except for a need for power and control.”
The inherent imbalance of power created by arranged marriages, coupled with the tenuous immigration status of women on H-4 visas, often tips the scales even further in favor of the abusive spouse.
Growing up in India, Pomeli says she lived a life of luxury. Her father was a bank manager who could afford to enroll her in a prestigious private school and classical Indian singing lessons. She did well in school, she says, and had great aspirations for herself. She hoped to be an artist someday.
When Pomeli's parents met a young aspiring software engineer, they began discussions with his family about arranging a marriage to the then-20-year-old Pomeli, as is still custom in many Asian countries.
“He was making a lot of money as a software engineer and he was a very good student,” Pomeli says of her ex-husband. “He was from a good family. My parents thought, 'It can't get any better than this. This is the best deal for our daughter.'”
Being an only child, Pomeli's father financed a lavish wedding. And once she was married, Pomeli moved in with her husband's family, where she quickly learned of her husband's tempestuous nature.
“He would get angry so fast, not because of me only, just if he couldn't find something, he'd start to throw things,” Pomeli says. “You should see his face, it was like a monster. I was so scared.”
In 1994, Pomeli's husband landed a more lucrative job in Silicon Valley. He filed for H-4 visas to bring Pomeli and their 1-year-old daughter to the U.S. with him.
Thrust into a new country, and extracted from the family home, Pomeli says her husband's rage grew to new heights.
“The abuse has escalated in the last two to three years after we moved to this country,” Pomeli said in a statement she submitted when filing for a restraining order against her husband after she left him in October 1997. “He always humiliated me in front of our friends. During every fight he would throw heavy objects at me, chase me with kitchen knives, choke me, kick me, slap me, and even while driving he would keep hitting me for apparently no reason. He also abused me sexually all the time.”
Throughout their six years together in America, Pomeli says her husband did everything he could to isolate her. He refused to give her money, and did not let her leave the house unless he was with her. He got angry when she called her friends on the phone, and checked the phone bills to make sure she wasn't defying him.
“He would say, 'Can you even earn a penny?'” Pomeli recalls. “But I couldn't. I was an H-4. And even if I could, he wouldn't let me. It was a way to keep us in his control. He said, 'If it's not for me, you couldn't come to the U.S. You should be thankful.'” [page]
Pomeli says she would call her sister-in-law for solace, and though the sister scolded her brother on Pomeli's behalf, Pomeli's husband only laughed. In the beginning, after hitting her, Pomeli says her husband would fall to her feet, crying and apologizing.
Still, Pomeli says she had never thought about leaving her husband, largely because of her adherence to traditional Indian culture, which views marriage as a sacred institution.
But one day, he threw an aerosol can at Pomeli that left bruises on her arm. And for the first time, he did not apologize. After that incident, Pomeli says her husband seemed to get recklessly violent.
A few months later, Pomeli called the police for the first time when her husband flew into another rage, and threatened her with a kitchen knife. When the police arrived, her husband persuaded Pomeli to pretend that nothing had happened, and she did not press charges.
That same month came the beating that prompted her to take her daughter and run.
The night she left her husband, Pomeli wanted to go to a friend's house in Pinole, but she had no money for cab fare. It was then that she began to realize the precariousness of her situation. “It was so many things at one time,” she says. “'Will I ever get a job? Should I go back to him? Will I survive?' He earns $80,000 and I am like a poor person. We used to have a square meal, and a big apartment. A bed. All the amenities. It's not that I missed living in a luxurious apartment, but I was thinking, 'What will I eat tomorrow?'”
She and her daughter stayed with neighbors the first night, then went from shelter to shelter for almost five months. The shelters helped her file for the restraining order; her friends found her an attorney who would help her gain custody of her daughter, and secure child support from her husband. Though police reports had been filed, her husband escaped criminal charges because she never pressed them.
Pomeli also worked with her attorney to find a way to stay in America. Leaving would almost certainly mean giving up her daughter. The restraining order she had obtained in late October gave her husband child visitation rights, and forbade both of them from taking their daughter across county lines. Pomeli also knew that as a single woman, she would not be welcomed by a majority of Indian society.
“I can't go back because society will always judge me because I am divorced,” Pomeli says. “If I went back [to India], I wouldn't have to look for housing. I could get a job. But society there wasn't ready to accept a woman so bold. They think I was being bold, but it was sheer self-protection.”
Her attorney and the advocates at the Asian American Community Involvement shelter encouraged her to take computer classes so she could add HTML and Java script skills to her résumé. Her attorney began working to convert her H-4 visa to a temporary F-1 student visa so she could stay here for a short time independently of her husband.
But having a student visa was a quick fix, and she wouldn't be able to stay forever as a student. Besides, even if she got a student visa, Pomeli could not legally earn money. And though her husband was supposed to make child support payments immediately, he left for India for about a month, and Pomeli was never able to get that money from him. Instead, Pomeli and her daughter subsisted on borrowed money, and slept on shelter beds.
Pomeli's attorney suggested that she begin looking for a job, in hopes that a company would eventually sponsor her on her own H-1B visa. For almost half a year she went to interview after interview, though her uncertain immigration status was a barrier.
“It stopped me everywhere,” Pomeli says. “No one was willing to sponsor my visa. I had to go door to door, begging to show them that I could do this work, and I had this training. All while I was under all this mental stress.”
When nothing turned up after several months, Pomeli's morale was at an all-time low. She decided to defy court orders and face a disapproving society by taking her daughter back to India in February 1999. Once her husband heard that Pomeli had returned to India, he returned to America, where he still had a job.
Pomeli stayed in India for more than a month, but being there was even worse than struggling financially in America, she says. “It was terrible. People would come by the house and say that they're sorry. Why are they sorry? They should say that they are happy that I have guts!”
Since she was still technically married to her husband, her H-4 visa got her back into the U.S., and Pomeli continued looking for a job. It took more than six months, surviving on the generosity of friends and shelters, before she found work with a consulting company that was willing to sponsor her in October 1999.
Now that she is here on her own H-1B visa and able to earn money, Pomeli says she has started a new life in America. But even with a regular income, Pomeli is still struggling to afford Silicon Valley life. She eats Top Ramen noodles most nights for dinner, and sleeps in a sleeping bag on the floor of her rented apartment. She can't afford to buy toys for her daughter, and the few pieces of furniture in her apartment are garage sale-bought.
Her husband quit his job and fled permanently to India in February 1999, and sent Pomeli divorce papers soon after he left the States. Pomeli ignored them. He still has not paid the bulk of the $2,400-a-month child support payments he owes. [page]
“I have faced a lot of problems being an H-4,” Pomeli says evenly, without self-pity. “I want to be peaceful. Before I was married, I was an independent woman. But I've lost all my self-confidence. I don't know how I just clenched my teeth and never hit him back.”
As the program director for one of the Bay Area's more established organizations serving South Asian women, Mukta Sharangpani is often the comforting voice on the other end of the phone line when domestic violence victims call Maitri for help. Sharangpani says she has seen an increase in domestic violence cases involving H-4 women in the past few years.
“This is not a novelty, this is such a norm,” Sharangpani laments. “It's such a limiting factor. We'll get calls where she's really unhappy, and she's looking for ways out, and then she says she's an H-4 and it's like, 'Oh, no.' Because there is so very little that we can do.”
Though domestic violence cases like this among immigrants are not new, many organizations say the problem has grown hand-in-hand with the swell in tech jobs and foreign recruitment of temporary workers.
Beckie Masaki of the Asian Women's Shelter says about 10 percent of their clients are on H-4 temporary visas. Chic Dabby of Narika, an East Bay domestic violence organization, also says the situation has been an “increasing part of the caseload.”
An exact number of immigrant women in abusive situations is difficult to extrapolate, since domestic violence generally goes underreported. For immigrant women, language barriers, cultural issues, a distrust of the legal system, and a fear of deportation cuts down even further on the chances that the victim will report domestic violence.
“If you're in a domestic violence situation, it's already difficult enough for people who have lived here a long time to trust the legal system,” says Kimball Lane of Battered Women's Alternatives in Lafayette. “But with immigrant folks in general, many people come from other cultures where they are not trusting of the homeland government, and it might be even more difficult to come forward and use this system. And then there are language barriers.”
Adds Dean Ito Taylor of Nihonmachi Legal Outreach in San Francisco, “In the forefront of people's minds is the INS and the legal system. I'm sure it's preventing many survivors from coming forward to get legal advice.”
A 1998 report produced by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office found that domestic violence disproportionately impacts immigrants and women of color. “Immigrant and minority women are often more isolated and lonely due to language barriers, loss of traditional support systems, a decline in their status, and discrimination,” the report says. Three of the five women who died of domestic violence in San Francisco in 1998 were immigrants.
In 1994, domestic violence organizations and immigration attorneys were able to lobby successfully for the Violence Against Women Act, which offers help for some battered immigrant women. The law allows foreign women married to U.S. citizens or permanent residents to petition for their own green cards to escape abusers who wield power over them because of their immigration status.
But there is currently nothing comparable in U.S. law to help women who have come to the country on temporary H-4 visas.
“The current Violence Against Women Act doesn't address the non-immigrant category,” says INS spokesperson Schmidt. “So H-4s are not covered. There isn't anything specific at this point, nothing in the immigration law and no statutes that offer protection for battered non-immigrant women.”
Without clear-cut legal procedures for handling these types of cases, domestic violence organizations have taken to providing whatever immediate help they can, and referring the victims to immigration attorneys, who say they have to use a bit of creative lawyering.
And a few long-shot options do exist. If they qualify, some battered spouses can apply for their own H-1B or temporary student visas. If she might be endangered by deportation to her home country, a woman may qualify for asylum. If she has family members in the U.S., they might be able to sponsor her. She can divorce her abuser — and try to get remarried before she is deported. Or she can try to get permanent resident status if her child is a U.S. citizen.
“There are remedies, but that means having an experienced immigration attorney,” says Ken Theisen of Bay Area Legal Aid. “But that's a problem, because there aren't that many free immigration attorneys out there.”
Taylor of Nihonmachi Legal Outreach says he gets about five calls per month relating to women on temporary visas and domestic violence. “The options are limited,” he says. “She'll call, she'll be in a shelter, and we'll sit down and talk to the survivor about their immigration status and their rights to seek prevention of violence. We have to be able to give her a clear outline of what her possibilities are. They take that information, and they try to decide what the best plan is. But it's not our practice to promise the world to our clients. We give them a realistic view of the risks.”
And Taylor says he's lucky if even 20 percent of these women pursue any kind of legal action. Similarly, immigration attorneys Donna Lynn Rubiano and Nadia Babella say they offer legal help to H-4 victims over the phone. But very few call back.
“We explain their options,” says Rubiano, who works with the Asian Law Alliance. “But on those calls, after we talk to them, we don't end up filing anything on their behalf.”
It is unclear how many batterers are deported in these types of cases — the INS says it does not keep statistics. Bay Area sheriff's departments say that they, too, do not keep numbers. They might note the immigration status of someone booked for a felony like domestic violence, but deportation is the responsibility of the INS. [page]
Susan Breall of the San Francisco District Attorney's Office says she has heard of batterers being deported on domestic violence charges in San Francisco. But she cautions that deportation is not always the best way to exact punishment on the abusive spouse because it could also trigger deportation for the victim.
“Rather than focus on the perpetrator, we look at the victim and their needs and her best interests,” Breall says. “And that may trigger different charges involving assaultive conduct. Or it could trigger multiple charges with shorter consecutive sentences so that it doesn't become a deportable offense. The defendant is still held accountable, but the goal of prosecuting them is to protect the public and the victim. We are tough but fair.”
Norton Tooby, an Oakland immigration attorney, says that often he might not push for deportation of the batterer if it might “re-victimize the victim.” “Maybe she doesn't want him deported because she wants child support,” Tooby says. “It's important to look at the interest of the victim, instead of having a blind, knee-jerk reaction.”
Sharangpani says there is a very pragmatic reason why immigrant women may be hesitant to report domestic abuse or push for deportation. “I had a client who called the police after being abused, but then [her husband] lost his job. She was furious with herself because now he doesn't have a source of income, and neither does she.”
In 1991, over a dozen women's organizations and 350 women from 25 different nationalities met at a conference center on the Berkeley Marina for the three-day “Dreams Lost, Dreams Found” conference. The event was the first national forum to discuss the issues facing immigrant women, and the agenda included workshops on housing and employment rights. But the last day was dedicated entirely to domestic violence.
“What was becoming clear was that domestic violence impacted [immigrant women's] lives,” says Leni Marin of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, which helped organize the event. “And it was intersecting with so many immigration issues.”
Discussion on the last day of the conference revolved around how immigration status plays into the abuse of immigrant women. At the time, an immigrant spouse did not qualify for a green card unless her citizen spouse filed on her behalf. Attorneys and organizations at the conference recounted cases where abusive spouses would purposefully not file immigration paperwork as another way to exert control over their victims.
Leslye Orloff, a D.C. attorney who has represented over 800 battered immigrant women, says the 1991 meeting was the catalyst for the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, or “VAWA.” Through VAWA, a battered immigrant woman can now self-petition for a green card if she can prove that she has been abused, and that she is married to an American citizen or a permanent resident.
“In the '80s, there were a handful of us who either as family law or immigration lawyers started seeing these cases of battered immigrant women who were in limbo,” says Orloff, who now works with NOW Legal Defense Fund's Immigrant Women Program. “But we were isolated from each other. The 1991 conference was the impetus for legislative reforms.”
And though the drafters of VAWA recognized the even more precarious situation of battered women on temporary visas like Pomeli, they knew that they had to sell the idea to a bipartisan Congress.
“We came to understand that politically, as a first step, we would be more successful if we started with spouses of legal permanent residents and citizens,” Orloff explains. “We wanted to try, originally, to have a broader group of people protected, but we weren't able to forge bipartisan support for that.”
“The focus has always been on giving relief to spouses of lawful permanent residents and citizens,” says Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, staffer for Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware). “I don't know if they thought to cover women on temporary visas. They're not permanent so the rationale to extend relief to them was not as strong.”
Funding for VAWA needs to be reauthorized in the current congressional session, and domestic violence organizations and immigration attorneys have thrown their support behind Illinois Democratic Rep. Janice Schakowsky's and Maryland Republican Rep. Constance Morella's bills. Their bills would essentially continue funding for shelters and domestic violence programs nationwide, make improvements to VAWA, and soften the blow of the Immigration Reforms of 1996, which, among other things, make it harder for battered immigrant women to get help.
To address the temporary visa situation, Orloff, who helped draft Schakowsky's bill, has incorporated “T visas” into the legislation. T visas would allow battered women and other crime victims on temporary visas to stay in the country while they help the police prosecute their batterers.
Orloff says introducing T visas as a solution to the H-4 problem was a creative political move. “Until now, we have been unsuccessful in getting people to move beyond the provisions of VAWA,” Orloff says. “What we decided to do is use the confluence of issues of the INS wanting to help crime victims, which the Justice Department is also interested in. Hopefully we can change the will governmentally of some people so we can try and deal with this group of immigrant women who are not covered by VAWA, but who could be covered by [the new legislation].”
But Marin, who has also been a leader in the legislative fight, says that though she supports the bill, she has reservations about T visas. “A lot of immigrant women will find it to be a problem because it brings in the criminal justice system as part of the deal to get some relief,” Marin says, “and already, there is so much mistrust from the immigrant community of the criminal justice system.” [page]
Meanwhile, advocates at Maitri and other organizations say that the U.S. government should at least offer temporary work visas to battered women in this situation.
“They call the cops, and walk out and think their lives are going to get better,” says Mukta Sharangpani. “But it doesn't. It's so hard out there that many H-4 women just put up with the abuse because at least then they'll know where their next meal is coming from. There should be some sort of provisional work permit so they can earn a living. If she had a work permit, she could work at Orchard Supply or do demos at Costco. Anything. Just some source of income.”
“This is a really terrible situation,” adds Sonya Pelia of Maitri. “This is one of the consequences of importing workers the way the U.S. is doing it. They haven't thought through this policy. The government has not thought through what it means to be in this situation. What are the impacts on the people? Every year we up the number of workers that we bring in, but human beings come with human problems.”
The following links are provided to assist the victims of domestic violence:
Domestic Violence Organizations:
Battered Women's Alternatives
Support Network for Battered Women
Bay Area Legal Aid
Asian Law Alliance
Nihonmachi Legal Outreach
Family Violence Prevention Fund