The US government has decided to allow spouses of foreign workers with H-1B visas to apply for work permits, a move expected to benefit tens of thousands of Indians techies.
The regulation for spouses of H-1B visa holders, first proposed last year and finalised as part of President Barack Obama's package of executive actions on immigration, will become effective from May 26.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director León Rodríguez announced that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had extended “eligibility for employment authorization to certain H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B non-immigrants who are seeking employment-based lawful permanent resident (LPR) status”.
The DHS amended regulations to allow H-4 dependent spouses to accept employment in the US. The move is expected to make things easier for families waiting in long queues for green cards, which grant permanent residency status, as waiting periods can be as long as 10 years.
H-4 visas are issued to spouses of holders of H-1B visas and a handful of other, less common, visas. H-4 visa holders currently cannot work or possess a social security number. Employers can hire foreign workers under H-1B visas after proving there are no qualified candidates available in the US.
Indians receive a majority of the about 85,000 H-1B visas issued each year, with most working in science, technology and engineering. According to the US State Department, a total of 96,753 people received H-4 visas in 2013, 76% of whom were from South Asia.
Finalizing H-4 employment eligibility was an important element of Obama’s immigration executive actions, USCIS said. The move will modernise, improve and clarify visa programmes to boost the US economy and create jobs.
“Allowing the spouses of these visa holders to legally work in the US makes perfect sense,” Rodríguez said. “It helps US businesses keep their highly skilled workers by increasing the chances these workers will choose to stay in this country during the transition from temporary workers to permanent residents. It also provides more economic stability and better quality of life for the affected families.”
The new rule requires H-4 holders whose spouses have applied for green cards to file an application for employment authorization from May 26 with a fee of $380.
The USCIS estimated as many as 179,600 people would be eligible to apply in the first year and 55,000 annually in subsequent years.
“The inability of those spouses until now…to seek and obtain employment has imposed in many cases significant hardships on the families of H-1B visa holders," said Rodriguez.
The action in defiance of Republican-controlled Congress is aimed at fixing America's broken immigration system and protecting five million illegal immigrants, including tens of thousands from India, from deportation.
The regulation change will also address concerns by tech companies that have pushed to lift the cap on H-1B visas and speed up the process for green cards.
Swapnil Gupta, a software engineer, described the new regulation as a "great relief". She moved to the US from India in 2011 with her husband when he was hired with an H-1B visa. Gupta has been unable to work in the US.
"I miss my job, I miss my financial independence," she told reporters on a conference call organised by FWD.US, a tech industry immigration lobby group. “I'm looking forward to getting back to what I love doing."
Television reporter Neha Mahajan, who moved to the US when her husband got transferred from New Delhi to New Jersey, was deeply frustrated after she could not get a job because immigration rules barred her from working.
"This rule has come as a big, big relief to me," Mahajan said during the conference call. "I can finally dream of being myself."
South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), an umbrella body of South Asian community groups, applauded the announcement as a "first step that will dramatically help some families in the US". The Telugu Association of North America (TANA) too welcomed the announcement, saying it would “directly affect many of our life members as they would now be able to join the professional workforce and chase the American Dream".
But Republican Senator Jeff Sessions claimed the spouses of foreign workers would take jobs away from Americans. "The administration says this is to reduce the 'personal stresses' on guest workers. What about the stresses on American workers, and their families and spouses, and their children?" he said in a statement.