Obama’s latest immigration tinkering targets guest-worker spouses caught in limbo

Good news for their spouses.
Good news for their spouses.
Image: AP Photo/Jason DeCrow
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Spouses of skilled foreign guest workers in the US will be allowed to work legally for the first time, a decision expected to ease hardship on families, and encourage them to become permanent residents.

The Obama administration, faced again with Congress’ lack of interest in fixing the broken US immigration system, is using executive authority to respond to the pleas of both global business and immigrants. About 180,000 spouses are expected to be eligible for new work permits in the next 12 months, and about 60,000 annually after that. Elizabeth Stern, an attorney specializing in global labor issues, told Quartz that, since it does not change their immigration status in the country, the rule change will be less controversial than Obama’s attempt to allow unauthorized immigrants to work legally.

The permits are for spouses of guest workers who have lived in the US for at least five years on an H-1B visa—which requires the sponsorship of an employer, and a degree in a skilled field—and who are applying for foreign residency. In practical terms, that means mostly Indian nationals, who dominate the skilled guest worker visa roles, particularly in technical fields: they account for 64% of all H-1B visas approved in 2012, or 168,367 workers. (The labor flow between India and the US is so significant that American immigration policy is frequently an important topic for diplomacy between the two countries.)

H-1B visas are issued for three years, and typically renewed once, but participants in the program can also apply for permanent residency. However, a rule that limits immigration from any one country to 7% of all immigrant visas issue means that nationals applying from the largest countries face daunting backlogs. In 2015, the government will issue just 144,000 employment-related immigration visas, but the wait list includes 323,089 Indian nationals and 243,400 Chinese nationals.

Faced with this hold-up, a 2000 law—the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act—granted extensions to H-1B holders waiting for the residency quotas to be met. But while they wait, their spouses couldn’t work, meaning that they could be living in the US for six years or more without working. Stern points out that spouses of immigrants with other kinds of visas get work permits, “but not the H-1B visa holders relied upon by corporate America.” She addsa: “In a way, that pain can be felt even more when somebody sees [their] neighbor down the hall, on another visa category, working. [They wonder,] ‘Why can’t my spouse have the right to work?'”

The situation has proven untenable to immigrants, both from the economic need for a second earner in the household and the perspective of family satisfaction—a highly educated, English-speaking worker may well have a spouse with the same characteristics who also wants to put his or her skills to work, perhaps someone they met while both attending a US college. That has put pressure on skilled workers contemplating permanent residency in the US to return home if they are stuck on a wait-list, leading employers to complain as well.

While the number of spouses expected to take advantage of this opportunity is small compared to the US workforce, the H-1B program itself has been criticized for reducing US jobs by bringing cheaper labor into the country—though economic research suggests that more skilled labor generally leads to higher wages in a dynamic job market.

In particular, two large Indian technology firms, Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys, which regularly bring thousands of Indian workers to the US on H-1B visas, have come in for criticism: They had to pay a $34 million settlement to the US government for abusing visa rules in 2013. One critic of the program, a member of the US electrical engineers trade association, cites figures that show the two companies sponsored 12,432 H-1B visas in 2013, but only seven applications for permanent residency.

The new rule change should relieve some of the pressure, but it’s worth noting that the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate in 2013 included that fix, and a plan to adjust the residency quotas that would have taken significant pressure off the backlog, making the system more efficient. The bill also contained measures that would have restricted the ability of TCS and Infyosys to hire most of their US workforce from India.