Widow’s ordeal highlights struggles documented immigrants are also facing under Trump

Sunayana Dumala's husband was murdered in a hate crime. With the administration cracking down on immigration, she may be forced to leave her life in the United States behind.

Sunayana Dumala talks about her late husband, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, during a news conference at Garmin Headquarters in Olathe, Kan., Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
Sunayana Dumala talks about her late husband, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, during a news conference at Garmin Headquarters in Olathe, Kan., Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

While undocumented immigrants face an onslaught of draconian actions from President Donald Trump’s administration, they aren’t the only ones caught in a messy and somewhat impossible system — something one tragic hate crime has made abundantly clear.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 32-year-old Indian national, was living and working in the United States when he was targeted and murdered by a white man in February, while at a bar in Olathe, Kansas. The tragedy left his wife, Sunayana Dumala, also a 32-year-old Indian citizen, completely devastated. But the horror was far from over — after returning home to bury her husband, Dumala faced an impossible decision: return to the United States and face potential deportation, or abandon her home of a decade.

Dumala moved to the United States for college 10 years ago. She married Kuchibhotla in 2012, and his H-1B visa status allowed the couple to apply for green card status together. But Kuchibhotla’s death shattered that dream. In an email to the Kansas City Star, Dumala wrote that the hate crime had altered everything in her life, including her residency.

“On the fateful night of Feb. 22, I not only lost my husband but also my immigration status,” she said. “I’m very fortunate that many people came to my rescue to get me back on a temporary status…and are continuing to work on a permanent fix.”

Efforts to help Dumala have been spearheaded by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS), who said he was “apoplectic” after learning about Dumala’s predicament. “We are not going to deport the widow of the victim of a hate crime,” he told the Star.

Dumala has been granted a one-year visa allowing her to return to her Kansas job at a marketing agency. Yoder, one of her advocates, is the lead sponsor of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, a bill that would accelerate permanent residency status for highly-skilled immigrants who often come to the United States from countries like India and China, only to spend years in flux while they work to gain citizenship. While 120,000 green cards are issued to immigrants each year, only 7 percent can come from any one country — meaning immigrants from heavily populated countries, like Dumala, face an uphill battle.

That issue has motivated Yoder, who is also capitalizing on current national interest to push his cause. Immigration issues have dominated headlines over the past few weeks, following Trump’s announcement that he would rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The announcement has placed the lives of 800,000 young undocumented immigrants in jeopardy and ignited a political firestorm, with policymakers on both ends of the spectrum working to push related legislation through.

Dumala’s story is illustrative of a wider issue, one that extends far beyond the immigration news that U.S. audiences are used to hearing about. While undocumented immigrants have borne the brunt of the Trump administration’s policy crackdowns, those attempting to migrate within an established legal framework are also coming up against repeated obstacles, hindering their ability to stay and build lives in the United States.

The Trump administration has come under criticism for targeting immigrants regardless of their documentation status: in April, the president announced an executive order cracking down on H-1B visas — the exact mechanism that allowed Kuchibhotla, and thousands of immigrants like him, to live in the United States.

“We are going to protect our workers, defend our jobs and finally put America first,” Trump said as he signed the order.

That announcement surprised many, in no small part because workers sponsored on H-1B visas overcome a long, complicated process in order to stay in the United States — a challenging ordeal that discourages many would-be immigrants from staying in the country and contributing their skills. As one of the few viable paths to documented immigration in the United States, the H-1B visa remains an oft-elusive, coveted prize, one to which Trump has taken a particular disliking.

The struggles documented immigrants face in the United States don’t end there. Dumala’s story is also indicative of the wider issues plaguing the spouses of H-1B sponsored immigrants, many of whom rely on the notorious H-4 visa for their residency status. Up until 2015, most H-4 visa holders — 90 percent of whom are women — were prevented from working or entrepreneurship. They were also unable to obtain social security numbers, further preventing any access to the freedom or mobility their spouses typically enjoy. One staggeringly popular Facebook page, entitled “H-4 visa—a curse”, offers a glimpse of the lives many recipients face — isolated, unsatisfied, and bored.

But that changed two years ago, when former President Barack Obama waived the rules for some visa holders, allowing them to work — something many H-4 recipients hailed as life-altering. Ketaki Desai, a 35-year-old H-4 visa holder, told CNN that the initial dependent nature of her visa had bothered her.

“I’m more qualified than my husband; I was making more than he was [previously],” she said. Desai holds a PhD in biomedical sciences, and relying on her sponsored husband, she said, was a both a hindrance and a check on her ability to contribute to the U.S. economy. Following Obama’s decision two years ago, Desai was able to get a job, a move that she said “changed my life and most definitely for the better.”

That could all change again under Trump. Save Jobs USA, a group of IT workers who claim they lost their jobs to H-1B holders, has challenged Obama’s move in court. With the Trump administration set to eventually review the case, H-4 visa holders are becoming increasingly nervous that their situations may revert back, leaving them in the same situation that they were before.

In August, Trump also backed a bill dramatically cutting documented immigration. Sponsored by Republican Senators David Perdue (GA) and Tom Cotton (AR), the RAISE Act (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy), would move the United States to a “merit” system. Currently, the United States prioritizes family ties when admitting new citizens; under Trump’s preferred approach, skills, education, and English-language ability will be prioritized instead, something that will have severe consequences for immigrants hoping to bring their families with them.

That’s not all the RAISE Act would do. More than one million people are granted legal residency in the United States each year, a number the Trump administration wants to cut to a mere 500,000. Coupled with Trump’s executive order on H-1B visas and his hardline approach to immigration more broadly, the bill has stirred concern and worry among documented immigrants and those hoping to immigrate.

Experts and researchers have criticized Trump’s immigration proposals, pointing to the moral and economic pitfalls they pose. With H-1B and H-4 visas under scrutiny and moves from the White House to slice immigration numbers more broadly gaining attention, international student enrollment is dropping, a trend that’s also been observed among H-1B applicants.

Some of these problems could be addressed by legislation like Yoder’s bill, which aims to help immigrants like Dumala. But many say the legislation is hardly a fix for a system which disadvantages documented and undocumented immigrants alike, despite the measurable benefits they provide the United States. And very few are likely to find themselves granted reprieves like Dumala — leaving them in limbo.

For Dumala, short-term relief has been a blessing. But she’s all too aware that, like many other immigrants in the United States right now, that reprieve could be fleeting, something that would both hinder her future and further devastate the life she built with her husband.

“Both…my husband [and I] got our home here and had many dreams,” Dumala said. “I want to fulfill those dreams by staying here.”