Each year, several thousand women immigrate to the United States in their capacity as spouses, only to find their rights compromised by the constraints of their visa status. When a wife enters the United States on a dependent spouse visa, she enters at the wish of her husband. Until the day she is eligible for a green card, her dependent immigration status allows her husband to control her ability to live in the United States and all rights that stem from that status. The inherent power differential within these relationships resembles those experienced by married women generations earlier, who relinquished control of their legal personhood under the laws of coverture. The mechanism of coverture, which extinguished a married woman’s independent identity in the eyes of the law, had far-reaching effects, including giving a male head of household the right to determine his family’s domicile. In spite of reforms that have attempted to address antiquated gender norms and make immigration laws “gender neutral,” most spousal immigrants are still female, and the historical precedent of coverture remains evident in U.S. immigration laws affecting the family, including dependent spouse visa provisions.

This article examines the various ways U.S. immigration regulations perpetuate the disparate treatment of dependent H-4 visa holders. The dependent spouse visa category imposes restrictions on the ability of these women to control their immigration status, work outside the home, obtain a divorce, retain custody of their children, and escape domestic violence. In spite of compelling evidence that the existing visa hierarchy fosters economic and legal dependency, and has devastating consequences for the day-to-day lives of H-4 spouses, these regulations have not been subject to any meaningful reform.

To the extent that legislation has created meaningful forms of immigration relief for immigrant women, these provisions primarily address the situation of victims of domestic violence. Not only are most H-4 visa holders not eligible for these forms of relief on account of their particular visa status, but the current system also fails to address inherent inequity in the law that facilitates domestic abuse and systemically subordinates women. Immigration laws shifted from family-based and labor-based immigration without concern for the rights of trailing spouses of skilled immigrants, allowing H-4 visa holders to fall through the cracks of immigration reform. This article posits that such reform should provide meaningful relief for spousal visa holders, and should address the longstanding inequities between husbands and wives that the current law perpetuates. True reform would not only contemplate H-4 visa holders as potential victims of domestic violence, but rather, would adopt more expansive rules that do not perpetuate the subordination of immigrant spouses within families and society at large.

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