At the firm in Mumbai where she worked in advertising and marketing, Niyati Desai had been a rising star. Had she stayed, she believes that by now she’d be a vice president.
Instead, eight years after she married and left that job to join her engineer husband in the Seattle area, the 32-year-old has not been able to work because the kind of visa she holds as the spouse of an H-1B worker doesn’t permit employment.
“I was very naïve about the H-4,” Desai said, referring to the visa she holds as the spouse dependent of an H-1B worker. She holds a master’s degree in advertising and marketing.
“When we married, my husband and I didn’t discuss my working in America at all. I just assumed that I would come here and do something successful. Nothing like that happened.”
But that could change this year under a measure unveiled Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — one of a number of provisions in an executive action plan President Obama first announced in November.
The change applies to people like Desai, spouses of foreign workers employed on the H-1B visa for skilled workers — a visa popular at companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft. Beginning May 26, the spouses can begin applying for work permits that would allow them to seek employment while their H-1B spouses’ green card applications are being processed.
Processing of these new work permits should take around 90 days.
DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that as many as 179,600 spouses — most of them women and many with advanced degrees — will initially be eligible, with an additional 55,000 each year going forward.
“I’m so thrilled,” said Desai, who now has a 20-month-old son. “I’m ready to hit the job market again.”
The change comes amidst a roiling debate in Congress over funding for DHS, which runs out on Friday. Many Republicans, opposed to most of the provisions in Obama’s controversial executive action plan, are seeking to block funding for the agency in protest.
Meanwhile, a federal district court judge in Texas has put a hold on the centerpiece of the president’s executive action plan, which would grant work permit and a reprieve from deportation to millions of undocumented immigrants in this country.
Noting the contributions H-1B workers make through entrepreneurship, DHS said this employment change for H-4 spouses is one of several underway to “modernize, improve and clarify” visa programs that could help grow the U.S. economy and create jobs.
It said that allowing the spouses of foreign workers to work will reduce the financial burdens and personal stresses families experience during the transition from H-1B status to legal permanent residency,
Tahmina Watson, a Seattle immigration attorney who specializes in entrepreneur and employment-based visas, said typically high skilled workers have high-skilled spouses and it’s a waste of talent to not allow them to work. Many H-1B workers have become so frustrated when their spouses are unable to work in the U.S. that families have given up and returned to their home countries, she said.
“Many such spouses also have the entrepreneurial spirit and want to start companies and create American jobs,” Watson said. “These provisions will finally allow spouses to contribute to the country and communities that they call home.”
The change will only benefit spouses of some H-1B workers. The H-1B is a temporary work visa, typically granted for a total of up to six years. For workers who want to remain in the U.S. beyond that, their employers must petition the government on their behalf for legal permanent residency, also known as a green card. For H-4 spouses to be granted permission to work under the proposed change, their H-1B spouses must be at a point in this process where the government has already approved such a petition. For workers from places like China and India, that process can take many years.
In recent years, the stories of H4 spouses living in a so-called “golden cage” have gotten a lot of attention. Desai said she didn’t want to spend a lot of family money to go back to college, the way a lot of H-4 spouses tend to do, when there was no guarantee of a job.
Over the years, she said, “I saw a lot of my fellow classmates and friends doing so well, top notch in their fields,” she said. “I see everybody progressing and hear their amazing stories.”
The daughter of medical doctors who’ve always worked for themselves, Desai said she has plans to pursue her own startup firm. But for now, she wonders how eight years of putting her career on hold will affect her when she begins looking for work sometime this summer.
“I image it’s going to be really tough after 8 years,” she said. “Will I have to start as an intern?”