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Smithsonian exhibit explores the H-1B visa

Patrick Thibodeau | Nov. 26, 2015
The online exhibit is recounts the experiences, in art and film, of visa users and spouses

goddess of visas edited primary
A close-up of Ruee Gawarikar's "Goddess of Visas," part of the online Smithsonian exhibit on the H-1B visa program. Credit: Smithsonian

There are temples in India where you can pray for an H-1B visa, specifically. Knowing this may offer up some context to "The Goddess of Visas," one of the works in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center's digital exhibit, "H-1B."

The Goddess of Visas is an arresting and intricate work by the artist Ruee Gawarikar, who writes: "She holds the mighty keyboard in one hand, while a benevolent hand showers the ultimate blessing on her devotees — the elusive H-1B visa."

The Smithsonian knows that its exhibit might be controversial, because it presents its story, through still art and video, from the perspective of H-1B visa holders and spouses. This digital online-only exhibit opened this week.

One artist, Venus Sangvhi tells how she was lucky enough to be sponsored for an H-1B visa, but how many of her fellow migrants were not, "with tears in their eyes and shattered dreams to start the process once again."

The challenge is in the framing of the exhibit, said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University and longtime critic of the temporary work visa program. "Will it become a way to conflate H-1Bs with green cards?"

A green card is issued for permanent residency.

"If so, and my guess is it will turn out that way, then the Smithsonian is playing in the political realm by distorting how the H-1B program is used by South Asians," said Hira. "The majority are now used for temporary labor mobility only."

Offshore outsourcing firms are the major users of H-1B visas, and Hira's research has shown that many of these firms sponsor relatively few of their workers for green cards.

Masum Momaya, the exhibit's curator, said Smithsonian expects some controversy. To help bring in a broader range voices, the museum is encouraging people to post about the H-1B visa experience on Twitter with the hashtag, #myh1bstory. "We're just basically allowing for that conversation to happen," said Momaya. "We're not taking a standpoint one way or another."

The Smithsonian's H-1B exhibit does not have any corporate underwriters. It is hosted on the Google Cultural Institute platform, a free resource that makes cultural material from museums and cultural institutions available to the public, said Momaya.

A focus at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is in telling of the American experiences of people from that region. "What we want people to take away is the range of emotions and experience that people go through when they come here with this particular visa and their journey to try to stay in the United States," said Momaya.


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