REDMOND, WASHINGTON -- Two young Indian co-workers face off across the table at a café on Microsoft’s main campus. The challenge? Who can eat the most panipuri: bite-sized Indian street food made up of a fried shell stuffed with spicy potatoes.
Dozens around them cheer. Upasana Kone is among them, laughing, taking photos and playfully boasting: “I chomped down, like, 20."
Kone helped organize this event to raise money for an Indian NGO called Child Rights and You. At 26, she has a master’s degree in business. Nearly a year ago, she got married and left Hyderabad for Bellevue, where her husband was working as an engineer for Microsoft.
Outside, Kone and I stroll past a lot of young, Indian employees with Microsoft badges. She blends right in.
Except, the thing is, Kone doesn’t work here. Her visa only allows her to live in this country, not work here.
Her husband is employed on a visa for high-skilled foreign workers, known as an H-1B visa. The federal H-1B programs allows workers to bring spouses and children here, but rules prohibit the spouses from working.
“Some people don’t understand the visa issue, so they constantly pit you against women of your age and say, ‘Hey, look at her, she’s moving on,’” Kone says. “It’s not that it’s my personal choice that I’m not working.”
The volunteer work is one of her main gigs right now.
In recent years, the Asian Indian population has grown faster in Washington than any other state except Hawaii, which has a very small population. Washington state is one of the top users of this H-1B program. Last year alone, employers here requested visas for more than 15,000 workers.
“But what about their spouses?” Kone says. “It’s almost like you don’t even look at us. It hurts your self-esteem, your independence. It kind of kills your confidence slowly and surely. It does. It is.”
It’s estimated more than half a million H-1B holders are in the U.S. at any given time. For their spouses, the work limbo can last up to 10 or 15 years. Microsoft is among the top 10 among nationwide companies that use the H-1B program.
Kone knew about the restrictions before she moved here. But she thought she’d be able to find an employer willing to hire her on the same type of work visa as her husband.
“So I apply and I get regret mails,” she says. “I get a lot of regret mails. Though I know I wouldn’t have gotten these regret mails if I were in India.”
Kone worked as a public relations executive in India. Her face lights up as she talks about her old job — it’s clear she liked it. But there’s another big reason she wants to keep working. “I want to help my mom and my grandmother and everyone back at home,” she says. “They never talk about it. But it’s my responsibility that I take care of them. That’s something which I feel bad about.”
Kone is an only child. And in Indian families, that often comes with a strong sense of duty. Her parents tell her she is both son and daughter to them.
Kone knows women who have spent years in her visa situation. Some give up on careers and instead raise a family, do volunteer work or get more college degrees. She’s also seen women become depressed and marriages crumble.
One option for Kone is to return to India, however she describes that choice as “almost morally, culturally and socially unacceptable.”
“We have to respect the institution of marriage,” Kone says. So for her, for now, a long-distance marriage is out of the question. Even though she says her husband would support her no matter what.
On a very rainy day in Pune, India, I recently met another woman who was in Kone’s same situation last year. Eventually, she did make the tough choice to live apart from her husband.
We take refuge in my hotel to talk.
“Everybody looks with raised eyebrows because this is not normal,” she says. “But what people usually don’t understand is why we do it.”
Because this is a sensitive topic in India, she asked to only use her initials, RP.
For about a year and a half, RP lived with her husband in downtown Seattle, then in Bellevue. They visited Mount Rainier and the San Juan Islands. But as the months wore on, she felt her career as a computer engineer slipping away.
“I didn’t want to, like, just compromise so much and just give up my whole career,” she says. “That’s when we decided that I should move back and then we’ll think what to do.”
Time zones in India and Seattle are about 12 hours apart. She and her husband usually talk twice a day by Skype. He’s having his morning coffee and she’s back from work, or vice versa.
She says the toughest thing is to miss out on the day-to-day of each other’s lives. But surprisingly, this frustrating time has made them closer. They discuss options to live together in India, or Singapore or any other place they can both work. She intends this separation to only last a year.
“It’s a global world,” she says. “And if we get opportunities somewhere else, we are always open to it.”
The power goes out in the hotel, as it does several times a day, and RP heads back out into the monsoon rain.
Back in Seattle, immigration attorney Tahmina Watson meets a lot of high-tech couples dealing with this issue. Specifically, the spouse visa, called an H-4.
“There has been a consistent push to the administration to allow H-4 visa holders – for spouses – to have work permits,” Watson says. “This has been a push for several years now.”
The only real option for an H-4 spouse to get a job here is to switch to an H-1B work visa. But they would need an employer to sponsor them.
That’s often a long shot, because these visa jobs have become increasingly competitive over the past decade. Only 85,000 visas are available every year. The number used to be higher. The annual cap has fluctuated over the years, from 195,000 to 65,000 – which reflects ongoing debate about foreign workers in American jobs.
Recently, the Obama Administration proposed a change to the spouse visas, with some narrow criteria.
“What we’ll see at a minimum is those waiting in the U.S. for a long time and in line for green cards will get work permits,” Watson says. “But what I hope to see is a blanket work permit for all H-4 visa holders.”
Under the current proposal, officials say about 100,000 spouses would initially qualify, then 35,000 more each year after. That could change. President Obama’s expected to announce a decision this year.
Back at Microsoft’s main campus, the food competition winds down. Kone isn’t sure how soon she might qualify for a work visa, if the new rule gets approved. So, she hunts for a quicker solution, and sometimes at night, wakes her husband.
“Hey, what if we move to the U.K.?” she says. “He’s like, ‘Sleep!’ Or go to Singapore? ‘OK, we’ll talk about it.’”
Lately, she also has her eye on Canada.
“I have such dreams,” she says. “Let’s see.”
Editor's note: The audio version of this story was updated to reflect President Obama’s immigration action last week. Obama’s announcement partially addressed the H-4 visa issue, but did not provide blanket work permits for spouses with H-4 visas as many had hoped. Under the revised rule, only spouses with a green card will be eligible for a work visa.