The Obama administration, looking to make adjustments to the nation’s immigration system while broader legislation is stalled in Congress, announced plans Tuesday to allow the spouses of some highly skilled temporary immigrants to work in the United States.
The proposed rule changes were announced with fanfare by Alejandro Mayorkas, the deputy secretary of homeland security, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who said they would help the country attract and retain immigrants with skills in technology and science, and “unleash more of the extraordinary contributions that immigrants have always made to America’s innovation economy.”
The proposals address visa rules that have long caused difficulties for the spouses of skilled immigrants, mainly from China, India and the Philippines, who are working here on temporary visas known as H-1B. The spouses, mainly wives, often have skills and education, too, but are not authorized to work in the United States, causing their careers to languish.
High-tech employers welcomed the plans. Fred Humphries, a vice president at Microsoft, one of the biggest users of H-1B visas, said they would have “a positive economic impact.”
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The proposals will be subject to a 60-day period of public comment that could lead to changes. Homeland Security officials said they hoped to issue final regulations by the end of the year.
The announcement drew criticism from several sides in the immigration debate. Some immigration lawyers and immigrant advocates said the proposals were too narrow. Republicans on Capitol Hill said the opposite, that they were a new example of executive overreach by President Barack Obama.
H-1B workers number in the hundreds of thousands at any given time. The new rules would grant work authorization only to spouses of H-1B visa holders who had taken the first steps to apply for permanent-resident green cards.
Immigrants with H-1B visas can work in the United States for six years and then apply for employment-based green cards.
The proposed rule changes acknowledge the huge backlogs that have developed for those green cards. The current wait for most immigrants from India is at least 11 years. Filipinos wait as long as seven years, and people from China up to six years. The immigrants can remain in the country while they wait, and with the changes, their spouses would be able to work during that waiting period as well.
Mayorkas said the changes would benefit as many as 97,000 immigrants in the first year and about 30,000 a year after that.
Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who represents a district with many immigrant communities, praised the proposals as a good “first step” that would protect immigrant families.
“Denying spouses the right to work is an ill-conceived policy that has gone on for too long,” Chu said.
But Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, accused the Obama administration of a “lack of compassion and understanding” for U.S. workers who have lost jobs because “companies prefer to hire lower-paid workers from abroad.”
Grassley also questioned whether the president had the legal authority to change the rules. “Where will this administration stop?” he asked. “What other categories of individuals will be granted work authorizations?”
A broad immigration bill that passed the Senate last year included major changes to the H-1B program, including a provision that would allow the spouses of all H-1B visa holders to work. The House has not taken up that bill, and it remains unclear if it will move on any major immigration measures this year.
Many immigration lawyers were frustrated that the administration’s proposal would not grant work permits to all H-1B spouses.
“It is a rather miserly grant,” said Angelo Paparelli, a lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw in California. “Other countries are clamoring to get the best and the brightest. Why are we not doing more?”
Australia and Canada are among the countries in the global competition for highly trained workers in science, technology and engineering that have more generous policies for the families of those immigrants.
Demand for H-1B visas has remained strong. This year, the annual limit of 85,000 visas was reached within one week after the application period opened.