The Department of Homeland Security recently announced new regulations that could allow dependent spouses of skilled immigrants to hold jobs of their own. Previously, the spouses of H1-B visa holders (immigrants who come to the U.S. to work in specialized fields, usually science or technology) weren’t granted authorization to work.
The change could have positive effects on the lives of 179,600 spouses this year, and 55,000 additional spouses each year, according to estimates from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The new rules will help alleviate the sense of shame, humiliation, loss of self-esteem and personhood that many of the highly educated spouses of H1-B visa holders experience due to their inability to continue their careers in the U.S. Prior to this ruling, “dependent” status deprived these spouses of even simple freedoms like being able to drive.
The regulations now pave the way for, but do not guarantee, more options. Thousands of H-4 visa holders (the spouses of H1-B immigrants, the majority of whom are women) will still be left in the lurch. H-4 visa holders can only get work permits after they’ve been approved for permanent residency, which can take several years.
We know from past research that the longer that individuals are out of the labor market in the U.S., particularly if they are women, the harder it is for them to get jobs that match their qualifications. My own research over the last five years shows the detrimental impact of H-4 visa status, not just on the visa holder but on all family members. Being forced to remain utterly dependent on one’s husband can create deep ruptures within family structures. This new policy may make for more stable and happier families when spouses on dependent visas have the option to work and thus can maintain an equitable economic footing in the family.
On top of that, the new regulations may prevent, or at least allow more recourse, for those facing domestic violence. Women can now have the economic agency to walk out of abusive relationships.
Though it’s not by any means a “fix-all,” the decision by Homeland Security brings many women hope for greater dignity and a sense of identity.