Step 1: A mixed methods plan
Although I had a personal connection with the visa, I wanted to explore whether and to what extent my experiences were similar or different from others. I planned to approach the project with research tools that I felt proficient in, namely, qualitative life story narratives. In addition, I also read historical and archived documents to better understand the social and political history of the H1B. At this initial stage my plan was to use the interviews to inspire my artwork. I wasn’t quite sure how that would happen but with my personal history with artmaking I thought my two selves: the researcher and the artist might meet and connect seamlessly with each other.
My own impressions were that U.S. society and the economy did not reflect or reward the expertise and the contributions of the H1B visa holders. Sivakumar (2004) refers to some of this resentment and backlash targeted at professional and high tech workers especially from India. In many ways, I felt that the visa tenure was a modern hi-tech manifestation of indentured labor. It constrained employment and professional advancement because the visa was tied to one employer (which is sometimes connected to being paid less than employees who were US citizens). There were social and lifestyle limitations as well that maintained a near constant sense of transience and tenuousness in society. In addition the H1B visa was linked to the employer so there were restrictions on changing jobs. The H1B visa holders pay every tax that any employed citizen is required to do, for benefits that they might never avail of. There are limited opportunities to take loans to buy a home or for education, no social benefits or safety nets (no unemployment benefits, disability benefits etc.), travel restrictions and no right to vote.
I reflected on and revisited my own past experiences of being the spouse of an H1 visa holder. I remembered my experiences which included our anxieties around employment and travel with the H1B visa and my frustrations of being unable to work when on an H4 visa. The H4 visa does not permit paid employment so I was not legally permitted to work, which placed a tremendous psychological and economic burden on us. For me, independence and economic autonomy were the core of my identity and to lose that was tremendously disempowering and demeaning. As I have at other moments in life, I had turned to art to make meaning and cope with the pivoting of the course of my professional life. But I didn’t want this project to just be about my experiences. I wanted to learn more and capture the experiences of others. My inner researcher wanted to see larger patterns and to examine what was unique as well as what was common to more than one family that had experienced the H1B. So I decided to contact others and collect more stories.
Step 2: Collecting the narratives and imagery
My expectation was that I would conduct interviews, collect data on the experience and then use that content to symbolize and inspire the artwork. So I sought out individuals who might have been on the H1B visa. I used a snowball sampling method and began recruiting respondents who had held an H1B visa (past or current) by sending out emails to friends and family members and seeking further referrals from them. I sent out invitations to participate in the interview to the nine individuals referred to me. Six individuals responded and agreed to participate in interviews. One person responded months later after the time frame for the interviews and the project were over. The final group of interviewees included three women and three men. In my interviews I sought to better understand the personal and professional experiences of being on the H1B visa. The interviews were conducted in person (for three respondents) and over the phone for three respondents. I asked them about how they came to be on the H1, challenges they had faced, opportunities and surprises in their experience, how they adjusted to life in the U.S., metaphors and images that represented their experience. Specific questions included:
- How did you come to be on an H1B visa or H4 visa
- What was the best part of the experience? What was the worst part of the
- How (if it all) did being on an H1B change things in your life?
< - What could be improved about the experience? Was it worth it?
- If you had to think of an image that depicts your experience, what would it be? You can also share a song, phrase, movie, dance or any other metaphor that captures your experience?
As I listened to the life story narratives I discovered some facts common to the respondents. The work done as part of an H1B visa was considered highly valuable and the visa holders prided themselves on their specialized skills that are considered unavailable within the native U.S. population. They brought intellectual capital, high levels of education, enthusiasm, youthful energy, creativity, socio-cultural richness and diversity to the United States. I learned that the H1 B visa although typically issued for six years could be held from 1 year up to 10 years (in case the visa holder is in transition from the H1 to a Green Card). Each of the respondents had a slightly different story about how they had come to be on the visa. Some of the interviewees had held several visas over the course of their stay in the U.S., including F1 (student visa), B1 (short term business visa), H4 visa (dependent spouse of H1) as well as coming directly from India on the H1 B employment visa. One respondent was currently on an H1B while the others had transitioned into being green card holders (referred to in legal terms as Resident Aliens or Permanent Residents) or become naturalized citizens of the United States. The ages of the respondents ranged from 33 years to 51 years. The years they had held the H1 also ranged from the early 90s to the present day (2013-2014). Their fields of work were science, engineering, information technology, recruitment , human resource management, and design.
I heard many parallels between my own experiences and those of the respondents. I heard the struggles with spouses on the H4 visa who were considered dependents and not allowed to work. Children born to anyone in the US are automatically granted citizenship which sometimes led to family members having different passports and levels of access to resources. Yet, the respondents I spoke with had chosen to endure these experiences as had I. We were voluntary migrants. It was a point of struggle but the jobs provided opportunities for exploration, innovation, creativity and cutting-edge work. The professional accomplishments were a source of pride and the life stories were testaments to optimism, self-reliance, courage, entrepreneurship, flexibility and resilience.
Step 3: Distilling the narratives and transitioning into images
Analysis of the data from the interviews indicated that each individual’s experience of being on the H1 was unique and evidence of their grit and determination. There were also some common elements in their experiences: These included: 1) Respect and recognition for their work as professionals; 2) Challenges negotiating immigration related legalities, bureaucracies and uncertainties; 3) Adapting to a new culture leading to a sense of personal empowerment; and; 4) Being locked in/imprisoned, disconnected, transient and detached from the life of everyone around them (citizens, green card holders). These themes seemed to permeate all the narratives but to different degrees. Some respondents were more focused on the personal empowerment outcome, others on the transience and professional restrictions of the visa.
While I was doing the interviews I was also playing with the actual images of the visa and the passport that held it. Below are images of the visa stamps, visa and the cover of an Indian passport. I took photos of the original images and edited them modifying color, shape etc. As I collected the images related to the visa, I discovered new dimensions to the experience. For example, the visa stamp upon return to the U.S. has the analogy of a prisoner and being on the ‘outside’ of the mainstream. Traveling and returning to the country when in transition to becoming a permanent resident is referred to being allowed on on ‘parole’. The outsider and prison imagery came up a few times in the interviews as well.
I began to construct images using the photo editing tool on my computer and superimposing the visa pages with representative narrative quotes. It felt appropriate to use digital media to create the composite images because many of the visas were given to computer or software technology professionals. Below are some images that include the background of the visa on the passport with representative quotes from the interviewees superimposed on them. The quotes relate to the themes that emerged from the interview narratives.