XQs XVII - A Conversation with Amy Bhatt

Posted by qainchi on May 01, 2019 · 24 mins read

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to "review" but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Praveena Lakshmanan for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI]

Amy Bhatt is Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies, Affiliate Associate Professor in the Language, Literacy and Culture Program and the Asian Studies Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She received her PhD in Feminist Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Her most recent book is High-Tech Housewives: Indian IT Workers, Gendered Labor, and Transmigration (University of Washington Press, 2018). She is the co-author of Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press, 2013). She is also the co-curator of the Smithsonian's traveling exhibit Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, WA and the co-chair of the South Asian American Digital Archive's Academic Council. Her current project focuses on precarious South Asian migrants, such as the children of H-1B visa holders who are "ageing out" of family reunification visas and South Asian DACA recipients.

Q. In High-Tech Housewives, you use personal narratives of Indian H-1B and H-4 visa holders to highlight complexities across a range of issues — visa regimes, marital experiences of dependent spouses, gender relations and gendered labor. What drew you to this project?

I began this project as part of my dissertation in the University of Washington's Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. At the time that I was doing my course work, I was also volunteering with a South Asian anti-violence organization in the Seattle area. I began working on a project aimed at reaching out to the spouses of temporary H-1B visa holders from India who were living in the U.S. on the H-4 family reunification visa.

The H-1B visa program brings in foreign skilled workers in specialty occupations on a temporary basis. Employers must sponsor an H-1B worker and they cannot switch jobs unless a new employer agrees to take on their visa application. Nearly 75% of H-1B visas go to Indian nationals who come to work in the nation's technology, finance, education, and healthcare industries. But those workers do not travel alone; they often bring their spouses and children with them on H-4 family reunification visas. As "dependents," these family members cannot work, get their own Social Security number, or even in some states, apply for a driver's license or library card. At the same time, H-4 visa holders act as an anchoring force for temporary workers, as they are much less likely to seek new employment opportunities if they have families to support in the United States.

Some of the spouses of these workers came to the attention of the nonprofit's staff because they faced isolation and, sometimes violence, in their home lives. This work ultimately brought me into contact with some of the participants of this study. While the issue of H-4 vulnerability was still my foremost concern, I grew interested in a larger question: what role does the family play in sustaining and promoting transnational migration and how do women fare as a result of that movement?

Amy Bhatt, High-Tech Housewives

Q. In your book, you coin and theorize the term "transnational housewife" and "circulating citizenship." Can you describe how and why you use these terms?

I use the term "transnational housewife" to highlight the roles that spouses and family members play in supporting migration. While migration is usually linked to economic push and pull factors, I wanted to highlight how the household is a key domain through which transnational migration operates and is lived. But the household is not a neutral category; it is a highly stratified space that relies on gendered labor practices. Considering that 93% of H-4 visas go to women, I wanted to underscore how dependency is enforced through temporary worker programs. While many H-4 spouses are well-educated and were working before migrating, they are structurally relegated to being housewives after coming to the US.

As for the idea of "circulating citizenship," I want to show how transmigration is closely tied to migrants' ability to navigate complex immigration processes. My study starts with the important role that borders, visas, immigration policies, and temporary and permanent residency programs play in the ability for some to become transmigrants in the first place. The H-1B program is an example of one such bureaucratic mechanism — it creates "temporary" workers, but allows them to apply for a change in immigration status. They are both supposed to be temporary, and yet they are allowed to apply for permanent residency and even citizenship. Because of this malleability, many use the H-1B to pursue pathways to permanent residency and/or citizenship. At the same time, through marriage and reproductive strategies, they seek to claim belonging in the US. Residency or citizenship is therefore used to ensure a foothold in their host nation, even if they decide to repatriate or continue to circulate between India and the US.

Q. You ground your work in feminist Marxist theorizations. What does it mean to use a feminist Marxist approach? How does this help explore migration trajectories and experiences of Indian IT workers on H-1B visa status and their spouses on H-4 status?

I use the term "housewife" to build on Marxist feminist theorizations of the unpaid and gendered household work that is often done by women to support late capitalism. Even though non-wage work is essential to creating future citizens, workers, and taxpayers, such reproductive labor is seen as existing outside of the economic realm. It is viewed as an extension of women's "natural" biosocial role as caretakers, rather than as foundational to capitalism itself. Sociologist Maria Mies famously argued that this rendering of women's work as "non-economic" leads to a gendered division of labor that places women below men economically and socially. As a result, men are able to accumulate capital as "breadwinners" who can sell their labor precisely because women, as housewives, are not free to do the same. This sort of "housewifization" is enacted through US immigration policies that force women to give up their status as workers while on the H-4 visa. Certainly, some women choose to leave the labor market when they choose to migrate. But the majority find themselves stuck at home with few opportunities for social or professional growth. So while family migration can help some workers advance their careers, it is often on patriarchal gendered terms and for the benefit of capital.

Many of the women in my book are as well educated as their spouses and had been working before migrating. While they are moving as spouses, their categorization as dependents grossly downgrades the skills and training that they bring to the US. In 2015, Obama's administration made changes to the H-1B program that allowed specific H-4 spouses to start working in the US. This work authorization meant a lot to women who had left their careers behind, but were eager to use their skills in the US. While it is easy to turn to patriarchy and cultural norms to explain Indian women's experiences, those frameworks don't capture the real change in India around women's education and work, especially within this globally oriented and technically-trained class. My intention is to use a Marxist feminist analysis to underscore the economic and social value that women migrants provide through their roles in the household, as well as in the workplace.

Q. How did you choose your methodological framework? What is the importance of documenting personal gendered narratives at the intersections of immigration policies/law, global economy, and transmigration? What were some of the challenges of doing transnational ethnographic fieldwork?

In order to understand how individuals and their families were making decisions about migration, I found that an ethnographic approach allowed me the chance to offer a longue durée perspective on how workers and their spouses understand their constraints and opportunities. I spent time in 2008-2010, and then again in 2015, focusing on the Seattle area. In part because there is a deep and fast-growing Indian community there thanks to the presence of tech firms like Microsoft and Amazon that are leaders in hiring H-1B workers. However, once I began digging into the narratives that H-1B/H-4 visa holders offered, I found that their stories did not end with their arrival to the US, nor did they follow a natural evolution toward citizenship. Instead, many found themselves cycling between India and the US. This meant that I also needed to adopt a transnational lens to understand their experiences. I traveled to Bangalore and Hyderabad in India in 2009 and 2013 to interview folks who had been in the Seattle area and then moved back to India.

I found this movement between locations to be extremely helpful in understanding how work and family cultures in both environments shaped migrants' decisions about where to call home and how to get there. Without that perspective, I think my book would be missing key insights into how transnational households are reproduced across borders. Of course, there are challenges in doing such work. I wish that I had more time and resources to spend longer in India to balance the rich data that I collected in the Seattle area.

Q. What are some of your reflections on the role of emotions when conducting transnational feminist ethnographic study?

Emotions play a huge role in ethnography! So many of the women on the H-4 that shared their stories with me were contending with massive shifts in their identities after migrating. Often times, they were stuck in positions of dependency for years. I think that having the chance to tell their stories and have someone care about them was meaningful and made them feel as though they at least had some measure of efficacy in their situations.

At the same time, for women living on the H-4 visa or as returnees in India, new gender-specific digital communities have emerged that try to break the isolation created by migration. These spaces help them make connections with others who are in similar situations, and to transfer information about how to best sustain a circulating lifestyle and household, particularly for children. I hadn't intended on integrating online sites and began my fieldwork mostly concerned with how migrants negotiate life in specific locations. I quickly realized that I needed to look more closely at virtual spaces that transmigrants were creating through blogs and social media as well.

By incorporating social media into my research, I opened up a sphere of researcher-participant relationships that moved beyond the face-to-face interactions that are hallmarks of traditional ethnography. Facebook, for instance, expands the temporal framework of observation by creating a virtual history of posts and messages. The emphasis in social networking on providing real-time "status" updates and other forms of "sharing" means that individuals have the opportunity to regularly broadcast personal details about day-to-day life to a wide audience. It also reinforces the sense that though these individuals are part of a global and mobile community, their connections and networks are surprisingly situated—but not geographically bound.

That is to say, I found that several of my informants in Bangalore and Hyderabad were connected to other informants or even my friends and social community in Seattle on Facebook, though it had never come up through our interviews or in other interactions. Looking at social media ended up revealing a social and emotional geography that might have been difficult to map otherwise.

Q. What five books would you say your work is in conversation with? Why?

My book builds on Aihwa Ong's seminal work Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, as I seek to understand how the immigration and naturalization system of the US offers certain kinds of opportunities that allow foreign nationals to claim belonging, while reinforcing gendered and racialized norms. My work is also deeply informed by Smitha Radhakrishnan's Appropriately Indian: Gender and Culture in a New Transnational Class, which is a fantastic exploration of Indian notions of cultural appropriateness and gender identity through their status as global subjects. Sareeta Amrute's Encoding Race, Encoding Class shaped my understanding of the embodied, raced, and classed nature of global knowledge work. Carol Upadhya and AR Vasavi's In an Outpost of the Global Economy: Work and Workers in India's Information Technology Industryis also a definitive study of the gender and class dynamics of Indian IT workers. Finally, even though the subject population is quite different, I found Deborah A. Boehm's Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans so helpful in articulating the key role that place plays in the construction of communities, even as migrants seek to transcend their status through circulation and movement.

Upadhya and Vasavi, In an Outpost of the Global Economy

Q. In what ways does the findings of this research/ your arguments inform immigrant policies and/or contribute to immigrant rights and advocacy work around South Asian migrants?

As someone who has been studying these issues for more than a decade, I have found it important to use my research to write for public audiences and to engage with the national debates about the H-1B program. I have written for The Conversation, The Indian Express, NPR's Academic Minute, AsiaGlobal Online, Ms. Magazine, and other outlets to help move some of the stories that I have collected into the public domain. I try to bring to the front the voices of individual women and men who are often stuck at the margins of debates over immigration. Since the change in administration in 2017, there have been policy changes to the H-1B and H-4 visa program that put their families at risk. On top of political and policy changes, the backlog for green cards for Indian H-1B families is so bad that many may never have the chance to become permanent residents at all, which would leave them in a liminal position indefinitely. My hope is that research will help shape more compassionate immigration and family reunification policies in the future.

Q. As a junior scholar, I am interested in knowing what advice would you offer to scholars who would want to publish a book based on a dissertation. Can you elaborate on this process?

I was fortunate enough to move the research that I did for my dissertation into this book. I had great mentors through my graduate school process who gave me consistent feedback on my work while I was in my program. Once you leave graduate school, however, you have to build up communities of peers and scholars that can help you carry that momentum forward. In many ways, the book really is a transformation away from the dissertation, which you tend to write for a smaller and specific audience (i.e. your doctoral committee). The book must appeal to a broader audience and is a chance for you to position yourself as the expert on your topic (which you are!).

I also had the chance to do additional fieldwork after getting my position at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Having some new data helped invigorate my thinking and allowed me to push beyond the initial arguments that framed my dissertation. I think that was a key part in helping me think of the book as more than an extension of my dissertation, but rather as a new intervention into the field.

My advice is to look for writing communities or partners that can help you stay accountable to the process and to start talking with editors soon after you finish so that you can take the time you need to really transform the dissertation.

Q. As you were working on this project what challenges did you face given the unsettling debates and changing policies around H-4 visa statuses?

Between the time the time that I started collecting data and when the book was published, the immigration landscape had transformed dramatically. I began my fieldwork soon after President Obama was elected. Even though his legacy on immigration is complicated, his administration recognized that the H-1B program had created a new problem — the tremendous backlog of H-1B workers from India seeking to apply for permanent residency, or green cards. USCIS only allows a certain percentage of green cards to go to applicants from any one country in any specific category. The numbers of Indian H-1B applicants annually has far exceeded the cap of green cards allowed from India in employment-based categories, which means that some families will wait for up to 100 years before becoming permanent residents!

Obama's administration had made important changes to the H-4 visa program that allowed some spouses to start working while they were waiting for their green cards to be processed, since the wait times are so long. However, soon after taking office, the current White House administration under Trump has tried to limit the H-1B and H-4 programs. Most recently, they have been trying to reverse the Obama-era rule that allows some H-4 spouses to work.

These policy changes were happening just as my book was set to go to press, so I had to quickly revise my conclusion to reflect the changing landscape. This is definitely one of the perils of doing contemporary ethnographic work that is heavily shaped by public policies. At the same time, it is very important that the work we do offers the necessary background to understand the past, and future implications, of the current moment.

Q. Can you share with us what project you are working on currently?

My new project, tentatively titled Dreamers to Deportees: Precarious South Asian Migration, extends some of the questions that I have been grappling with in High-Tech Housewives about how liminal immigration status shapes individual and family decision-making about settlement and mobility. With the Trump administration's decisions to strip protections from undocumented "Dreamers," curtail family reunification, and limit guest worker programs, immigrants are at greater risk of expulsion or being blocked from entry than ever. I focus on three categories: 1) spouses who came to the US on temporary visas, but cannot work; 2) children of H-1B workers who are "aging out" of family reunification visas; and 3) South Asian DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) recipients. These populations are all considered "precarious," because of the immigration restrictions and problems they face because of their status. I have started collecting personal narratives from these groups through ethnographic interviews and surveys, as well as through news media, policy, and social media accounts. In doing so, I hope to explore how migrants' personal, educational, and work trajectories are shaped by the opportunities and limits posed by their status. By focusing on precarity, my goal is to push beyond traditional distinctions between unauthorized/authorized immigration, economic/family migration, and illegal/legal statuses.


Praveena Lakshmanan is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Michigan State University. Her scholarship lies at the intersection of the sociology of international migration and gender with interests in South Asian migration, intersectional and transnational feminist theories, Third World and postcolonial feminisms, feminist research methodologies and epistemologies, gender-based violence, and other racial, ethnic, and gendered forms of domination. Lakshmanan has pursued these interests by studying South Asian migration and communities in the American South, with an emphasis on Texas. Broadly, Lakshmanan's work draws on elements of qualitative methods in migration and feminist ethnographic methods to contextualize gender analysis at the intersection of immigrant status and different levels of immigrant social life. Her dissertation research adopts a comparative approach to critically examine legal status variations among South Asian migrants and its impacts on individual agency and gendered experiences.