The US Department of Homeland Security issued a proposed regulatory change on Thursday that would take away the right of spouses of H-1B guest workers who are seeking employment-based lawful permanent resident status to work legally while awaiting their green cards, the Wall Street Journal reports.
In 2015, the Obama administration introduced a program allowing these holders of H-4 visas (the visa granted to spouses of workers on H-1Bs so that they can live together in the United States) to obtain legal authorization to work. In a notice of intent to propose a rule next year, the department says it is proposing “to remove from its regulations certain H-4 spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants as a class of aliens eligible for employment authorization.”
The notice cites the executive order President Donald Trump issued in April, titled “Buy American, Hire American,” which called on the departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security and State to crack down on the abuse of guest worker visa programs like the H-1B and H-4, and to amend procedures for allocating H-1B visas that award them based on merit rather than through a lottery.
Opponents of the Obama administration’s rule letting H-4 spouses work contend that it was an act of executive overreach (and are challenging it in court on that basis); the Trump administration “appears to be signaling that it intends to overturn it rather than defend it,” the Journal reports. Critics also say the previous administration did not do enough to ensure that H-4B holders did not displace American workers.
Supporters of the program, on the other hand, say reversing it would be economically destructive and force thousands of H-4 spouses, many of whom have started their own businesses or have US citizen children, out of the workforce. As the vast majority of H-1B holders come from India, so too do most H-4 spouses, and this rule change will have a significant impact on the US’s Indian guest worker community, where spouses (mostly women) do not relish the prospect of once again having to give up their own careers to live with their husbands in the US, Quartz’s Ananya Bhattacharya points out:
Any discontinuation of work permits will have an outsized impact on thousands of Indian H-1B workers and their families living and working in the US, whose green card application procedures can stretch upwards of 12 years. Before this rule was introduced, the spouses of H-1B workers were fully dependent on them during this time, unable to work outside.
“I could not work and I realised I did not have a sense of purpose,” Meghna Damani, who left her advertising job in Mumbai to marry and move to the US, told Quartz last year. She battled severe depression during this time, a manifestation of the pressure that many H-4 spouses feel after years of remaining unemployed just to be able to live with their partners. “I wanted to just die. To no longer feel this guilt, this wastefulness. To no longer feel like a burden.”