Bride and Prejudice: How U.S. Immigration Law Discriminates Against Spousal Visa Holders

48 Pages Posted: 21 Mar 2013 Last revised: 27 Nov 2017

Date Written: February 28, 2013


Each year, several thousand women come 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 U.S. on a dependent spouse visa, she enters at the wishes of her husband. Until the day she is eligible for a green card, her husband controls her immigration status and essentially acts as gatekeeper of her rights, much in the same ways that married women relinquished control of their legal personhood under the laws of coverture. In spite of the reforms that have attempted to address the antiquated gender norms elsewhere in the law, immigrant women still disproportionately experience the effects of coverture, which provide the foundation for U.S. visa laws.

This article examines the various ways in which U.S. immigration regulations perpetuate the disparate treatment of dependent H-4 visa holders, imposing restrictions on their ability to control their immigration status, work, obtain a divorce, maintain custody of their children, and escape relationships of domestic violence. In spite of compelling evidence that the existing visa hierarchy fosters economic and legal dependency, immigration regulations have not been subject to any meaningful reform, though they have devastating consequences for the day-to-day lives of H-4 spouses.

To the extent that the legislation has created meaningful forms of 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 law also fails to address the dependent dynamics that facilitate this abuse and subordinate women even in otherwise healthy relationships. This article posits that comprehensive immigration reform should provide meaningful relief for spousal visa holders, addressing 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 adopt more expansive rules that do not perpetuate subordination of immigrant spouses within families and society at large.

Keywords: H-4, gender, immigration, coverture

Suggested Citation

Balgamwalla, Sabrina, Bride and Prejudice: How U.S. Immigration Law Discriminates Against Spousal Visa Holders (February 28, 2013). Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2014. Available at SSRN:

Sabrina Balgamwalla (Contact Author)

Wayne State University Law School ( email )

471 Palmer
Detroit, MI 48202
United States

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