Spouses of H-1B visa holders cheer new path to work

For the first time since 2011, celebrations of success have arrived in Rashi Bhatnagar’s Facebook group, “H4 visa, a curse,” and have been shared by more than 11,000 members.

Spouses of certain high-skilled foreign workers are allowed to work starting in May, the Department of Homeland Security announced in a statement Tuesday.

“It has been a victory that too many of us have waited for for a long time,” said Bhatnagar, founder of the group, who lives in Racine, Wis.

A native of India, Bhatnagar came to the United States with her engineer husband in 2009 and has been kept out of the job market, despite having a master’s degree from Delhi University, one of the best higher education institutions in India.

“I’m so excited to go back to work, and pick up my confidence again,” she said. “I'll start my own lifestyle company, create jobs and pay more taxes, which will definitely be an asset to the U.S. economy.”

The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa that allows foreign workers, usually holding bachelor’s degrees or higher, to legally work for U.S. companies. Their spouses, as well as their children under 21, are H-4 visa holders, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The rule will affect up to 179,600 people this year and 55,000 annually in subsequent years, according to the agency.

The new policy came out three days before the deadline for Congress to decide on whether the DHS should be fully funded or partially shut down. It’s also the first official policy to come out of President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration last November.

“Allowing the spouses of these visa holders to legally work in the United States makes perfect sense,” Leon Rodriguez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a statement. “It helps U.S. businesses keep their highly skilled workers by increasing the chances these workers will choose to stay in this country during the transition from temporary workers to permanent residents. It also provides more economic stability and better quality of life for the affected families.”

Foreign-born and native-born workers don’t generally compete for the same jobs, according to a release last year by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly half of new vacancies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics occupations for which there are H-1B requests remain unfilled by domestic workers a month later, according to a study by the Brookings Institution in 2013.

Beth Werlin, director of policy at the American Immigration Council, said in an interview that spouses of high-skilled foreign workers were usually high-skilled, too, but the United States didn’t take good advantage of those talents.

Spouses of H-1B workers have been unable to work since H-1B visas were first granted in 1990. These spouses could lawfully live and go to school in the United States, but they couldn’t get Social Security numbers, which means they had problems getting driver’s licenses and credit cards.

“The new policy definitely helps the U.S. to keep up with other countries in the global competition for high-skilled workers,” said Werlin. Many other developed countries, such as Australia and Canada, have more open policies to allow those spouses to work, she said.