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Finally — 40,000 skilled immigrants won't be housewives anymore

In India, Anjali had her whole career ahead of her. She had just graduated from Anna University with a degree in information technology; and for the last year — as a college senior — she had been working as a web developer. ("Anjali" is a pseudonym; she requested her name not be used.) She wanted to rise to the level of project manager, and go from there. "I had all these dreams," she says. "I had so much opportunity in India."

In 2007, she got married, and moved the next month to the United States with her husband, who had received a visa to work as a software tester in Raleigh. But by the terms of his H-1B visa, Anjali herself couldn't work — in IT or anything else. "I really felt that I was crippled in this country," Anjali says now. "I always thought of the US as a land of opportunity, and it has helped so many people go to great levels, but for me, I just felt that all my talents are totally wasted."

The government is finally moving to fix problems like Anjali's. According to an Administration announcement in April, the government is finally going to publish a new regulation that's been in the works since 2012: allowing some spouses of "high-skilled" visa holders to work in the US themselves. Here's how it would work, and what's at stake.

What's the problem with the current system?

When a high-skilled immigrant gets an H-1B visa, he can bring his spouse and children along. They get a different type of visa (called an H-4), that allows them to live in the US legally — but not work here. That's why Anjali was forced to choose between her new husband and her IT career.

This can really strain a family — not just financially, but emotionally. With no legal way to make a living on her own, the non-working spouse is totally dependent on the "principal" (working) visaholder. That kind of power imbalance doesn't make a healthy marriage. Domestic violence is distressingly common among spouses of H-1B visa holders.

"I have personally heard of a lot of stories from spouses who have just gone through tremendous issues," says Pramila Jayapal of We Belong Together (an advocacy group that focuses on women and families in the immigration system). "And it's an absolute waste of economic talent."

Why doesn't this affect men and women equally?

In theory, H-1B visas are just as available to women as to men. But while there aren't statistics on H-1B visas in particular, women are generally underrepresented among immigrants with work-based visas. For every work visa that goes to a woman, three go to men. Data on workers who come to the US with green cards also indicates that most of the high-skilled workers who immigrate to the US are men: the government doesn't provide detailed data anymore, but in 2004, three-quarters of all green cards for workers went to men — while two-thirds of the green cards for the "dependents" of those workers went to women. In those cases, the spouses can also work — but the data demonstrates how big the gender imbalance is in the high-skilled labor the US imports.

How does the administration have the authority to change this?

Whether or not an immigrant's allowed to work in the US isn't just determined by their visa status. There's a separate form, which certain categories of immigrants are allowed to fill out if they didn't get authorized to work as a term of their visa. If the form's approved, the immigrant is able to work in the United States. What kinds of immigrants are allowed to apply using this form is something the administration has a lot of leeway with (for example, in 2012, they used this to allow DREAMers who'd received "deferred action" to apply to work legally). What the administration's proposing now is adding spouses of H-1B visa holders to the categories of immigrants who are allowed to use that form.

The administration also doesn't have to worry much about political backlash. There's a general consensus that high-skilled immigration is good for the economy, and both parties are pushing to let more high-skilled workers into the country—so letting skilled workers who are already in the US actually work is a win-win.

What's going to change?

Under the new regulations, spouses of workers with H-1B visas could also work legally in the US — but only under three circumstances:

  • the employer of the H-1B visa holder (the working spouse) already applied for him to get a green card
  • the spouse is a high-skilled immigrant in her own right — educated and qualified to work in the same sort of fields her husband is, and
  • the family has been in the US for a certain amount of time.
The first requirement rules out a lot of families. According to Neil Ruiz of the Brookings Institution, many employers, like Microsoft, want workers to have green cards as soon as possible after arriving in the US — so they'll file applications for an H-1B visa and a green card for the same worker at the same time. But Ruiz estimates that less than half of the employers who use H-1B visas do this. So while 85,000 workers get H-1B visas every year, this change probably affects 40,000 or fewer families.

The second requirement might also be limiting — after all, in many countries, women just don't have the same educational opportunities as men. (This is probably a big factor in why men get so many of the available work visas to begin with.) Women who are less educated than their husbands are likely the ones most vulnerable to begin with, and the new rule wouldn't help them. That said, according to Jayapal, "in terms of spouses of H-1B visa holders, the number" who are also educated "is probably quite high."

But because of the third requirement, any spouse of a visa holder will still have to spend a certain amount of time living in the US without being able to work. And that could make it harder for them to get jobs once they can work. After three years in the US, Anjali was finally able to receive an H1 visa herself — only to find that employers were turned off by the three-year gap in her resume.

Ultimately, though, the new regulation means thousands of people, most of them women, aren't just going to be "spouses" in the eyes of the immigration system. They'll be workers, and people, in their own right.

UPDATE: This article was updated on May 6th, 2014 to incorporate the formal Obama administration announcement of the new regulations.