Proposed Rule Change for High-Tech Migrant Workers’ Spouses Isn’t Enough

On May 6, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a press release announcing it would extend work permits to the spouses of highly skilled immigrants in hopes of attracting and retaining these temporary migrant professionals. Since then, headlines such as: “H-1B visa spouses to get work permits soon” and “United States Changes Visa Rules to Keep Foreign Talent” have been flooding the news in India, where there are huge implications for highly skilled workers and their families.

The H-1B visas are a response to the shortage of high-tech workers in the United States. As I wrote before in the Ms. Blog, the U.S. doesn’t produce enough computer engineers, analysts, programmers, engineers and doctors to meet the country’s needs. It tries to solve this problem by allowing U.S. businesses to hire high-tech workers from other countries seeking temporary work in  “specialty occupations.” These visas allow U.S. companies to employ foreign individuals for up to six years, with the possibility of permanent residency. To further entice them, the country offers H4 dependent visas to their spouses and children—but those dependents are not allowed to legally work in the U.S.

India is one of the largest recipients of the H1-B visas, and H-4 visas as well. In 2013, Indians held 65 percent of all H1-B visas (153,223) and 74 percent of all H-4 visas (96,753). My research has shown that the shortcomings of dependent visas can cause families to fracture and break because of the restraints on what the spouses can and cannot legally do in the U.S. It also creates gender-unequal families modeled on the 1950s nuclear family, with a stay-at-home spouse that’s unable to seek a job.

The DHS proposal that would allow spouses of H1B visa holders to work in the U.S. is certainly a step in right direction but still a small step. The proposal will only help retain some of the migrant high-skilled workers in the U.S., because it specifies that only spouses of those H1-B visa holders whose permanent residency (green card) application have been approved would be eligible to receive a work permit. This stipulation ensures that H-4 visa- holding spouses are disallowed from working for at least 6 years (duration of the H1-B visa), if not more. Given that women are the main recipients of the H-4 visas, it still keeps them off the labor force for half a decade, adding to the disadvantages that women and women of color have in the labor markets.

But even besides the “right to work” issue, grave concerns still remain regarding how H-4 visa holders are treated. As my research shows, they are often made to feel “dehumanized” and “invisible” (in the words of my interviewees), not only because they don’t have the right to work but also because they’re prohibited from having an identity outside of their spouses’. They are not issued Social Security numbers or given any state-issued identification. In states where they are allowed to drive, the driver’s license specifies that it is “Not Valid for Identification”.  These restrictions contribute to a type of dependence that goes beyond just not being able to work. Denial of identity by the state can be psychologically debilitating, and it goes against the government’s goal of creating policies to retain the workers.

Additionally, applying for a permanent residency for a H1-B visa holding worker is the prerogative of the employer, which means that many H-4 visa-holding spouses will never be eligible for a work permit or have an identity of their own during their stay in the U.S.

So why this half-hearted attempt to fix a policy that has not worked?

Until July 11, comments are being solicited about the proposed ruling here.