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SO long as Congress fumbles one opportunity after another to fix the nation’s broken immigration system, the Obama administration is left with no choice but to take small actions on its own.

A minor but symbolic rule change proposed this week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would authorize the spouses of certain H-1B workers to hold jobs, provided the employed husband or wife has begun the process of applying for permanent residence.

There’s no rhyme nor reason for limiting this pool to such a small contingent. But absent a comprehensive immigration-reform package, the recommended policy could be an effective strategy to help the United States better compete with other countries for highly skilled talent.

Think of the human element in all this.

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H-1B employees in the technology and research sectors often choose to work in places where they are allowed to bring their families.

As The Seattle Times reported in May 2013, some of the wives of software engineers throughout our region have one or more advanced degrees from their native countries. Some are graduates of U.S. institutions. They would work if they could.

Instead, they are among the nearly 100,000 spouses of H-1B workers nationwide who are classified as H-4 dependents. Without Social Security numbers, these spouses cannot work. They are shadows of their former professional selves — relegated to unpaid positions or staying at home.

The loss of human capital is enormous.

Removing unnecessary barriers and giving these spouses — and other qualified immigrants — opportunities to utilize their skills and realize their earning potential would be a boon to local communities and the greater economy.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Erik Smith, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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