Anxiety, dignity, isolation and, above all, opportunity make the story of the H-1B visa, which marked its 25th anniversary November 29.
The employment-based visa, which permits non-United
States citizens with exceptional skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to work here on a temporary basis was created by the US Immigration Act of
1990. Initially for a period of three years, with a possible
extension of three more, the visa annually brings thousands
of skilled minds to the US shores with the hope of permanent residency and a shot at the American Dream.
It is of particular relevance to immigrants from
India with its large cadre of engineers, science graduates and booming information technology industry.
Today, approximately one-third of H-1B visas annually are issued to South Asian workers, the majority of
them from India.
All of these facets of the visa are represented in the
Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s digital
exhibition to mark 25 years of the H-1B visa. In the
exhibition, titled H-1B, 17 South Asian and Asian
American artists explore America’s immigration
story through the visa and the range of emotions
associated with living in America.
‘For the past 25 years, several generations of young
scientists and engineers from all over Asia have come
to be part of a “New America” and “shape United
States’ culture of innovation and entrepreneurship,”’
says Konrad Ng, director, SAPAC.
For many, he continues, ‘the visa is more than a piece of
paper affixed in a passport, it determines so much of life in
America and the opportunity to become American.’ And
this is what the artwork captures.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Masum Momaya,
museum curator, SAPAC. She tells India Abroad, “H-1B
came about through my research for the Beyond Bollywood:
Indian Americans Shape the Nation exhibition. I wanted to
make sure that the uniqueness and nuances of this particu-
lar aspect of Indian immigration to the United States was
represented, in part because it’s important to our overall
history here but also because this often gets stereotyped or
overlooked in contemporary dialogue around immigration.”
“Although many people have heard of an H-1B visa or
know an immigrant who has one, there is little awareness of
why it was created — to bring a class of technically-skilled
workers to the US at a particular time in American history
when our economy needed workers with these skills,” she
explains. “Many of these immigrants would eventually con-
tribute to advancements in mathematics, science, engineer-
ing, technology and Silicon Valley as we know it today.”
She adds, “Also, few people outside of those seeking an H-
1B visa are aware of how difficult it is to obtain one and
how much uncertainty and how many ups and downs peo-
ple experience even when they have one.”
The depth of the story, its many arcs, she felt,
deserved more than a frame in Beyond Bollywood.
So, the SAPAC issued an open call for submissions,
asking artists to render their experiences of living and
working in the US with an H1-B and/or an H-4 visa.
“We received 30 concepts from around the world,”
Momaya says. “We selected a number of them to create works in an earlier version of this exhibition, also
titled H-1B, which showed at Twelve Gates Arts in
Philadelphia from January-February 2014. A jury
selected one work, The Goddess of Visas by Ruee
Gawarikar, for inclusion in Beyond Bollywood.”
It slowly expanded into the exhibition in its current
“We didn’t feature famous IT people from Silicon
The exhibition began November 23, and she adds, “It will
be available in perpetuity through Google Cultural Institute’s
Web-based platform, so that audiences around the world
could view the works, which all share personal narratives and
important nuances of the immigration experience.” n
Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center marks the silver
jubilee of the H-1B visa. Aziz Haniffa takes a tour.
Above, Ruee Gawarikar’s Goddess of Visas, a humorous take on the tedious and often anxiety-ridden process of applying for a work visa. Left, Venus Sanghvi’s Voyage depicts the voyage taken by Indians for acquiring the H-1B. The ocean represents the tumultuous journey, the boat the opportunities, and the people the hope. Below, Arjun Rihan’s Passport Size Portraits consists of photographs of the artist, taken in the process of applying for various immigration documents. The work uses juxtaposition, repetition, and progression to examine the fragmented and layered experience of living abroad.