Work permits on the way for some H1B tech workers’ spouses

Niyati Desai, who lives in Kirkland and is here on an H-4 visa, will be eligible to work in the U.S. under a new plan detailed by the Dept. of Homeland Security this week. (Courtesy photo)
Niyati Desai, who lives in Kirkland and is here on an H-4 visa, will be eligible to work in the U.S. under a new plan detailed by the Dept. of Homeland Security this week. (Courtesy photo)

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.

Long wait times for Green Cards can leave spouses in limbo, unable to work, for years on end. (Graphic by Third Way Think Tank)
Long wait times for Green Cards can leave spouses in limbo, unable to work, for years on end. (Graphic by Third Way Think Tank)

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?”

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      1. I feel this policy will def affect the unemployed green card holders. There are countless unemployed people out there. If H4 people are given this previlage, then every Tom- dick and Harry can work in the country. This increases the competition. Getting a job in US is going to be difficult!

        1. @Esg Jobs are not given out in America, you have to generally earn your spot. I think he the H4 visa will have the onus of proving that they is no suitable American for the job

    1. Well, there are millions of unemployed American workers (displaced by H-1B) who could be assets to any organization – but then they are discriminated by age and wages!! Sad state of affairs,

  1. It took a little time but Jennifer Wedel now has her answer. As do US citizens in STEM professions and families across a once great nation. And that message could not be more clear and direct.

    The US government says, “FU and your husbands too.”

  2. Strange, She has a masters degree and she was naive about H4. Doesn’t make sense. Most spouses know what they are getting into when they come here. They can always get into the Job system by taking up the mantle of education and getting a job themselves. I have seen people doing that and get jobs on their own merit. Why can’t they do that?

  3. This will have the very positive effect of lowering the price of H1B workers. Previously a company would have to pay the H1B worker a higher salary to compensate for the fact that the spouse could not work. Now they will not have to pay that premium.

    Eg: if a couple could earn $150k in another country, the employer probably had to pay around $150k to entice the couple to come to the US (Probably a touch less due to 1 spouse not working and desirability of the US).

    1. Every policy that the govt is implementing is towards bringing more H-1B workers and destroying the local IT industry. The aim is keep the rich owners happy and destroy the local middle class. The rich sure are very happy at how effective their lobbying has been. A while back they started the baloney about STEM worker shortage to further expand their agenda. They did it very well for a while but everyone knows the truth; every systematic study has shown how false the “shortage” story is

  4. Naive about H-4? That’s surprising.Before going to foreign country, everybody is aware about visa type and type of work they will do
    H4 to H1 transfers are quite possible if you are into IT field. For Niyati’s field, that will be challenging.

    1. Hahahaha! She’ll have a Master’s degree in Computer Science printed up in about a week and a fake resume claiming she worked as the NSF. How do I know? Because I’ve seen such an application from a friend of mine and knew it was 100% fake.

      And he got a security clearance with it. He wrote (bad) code for military jets. Off you crash into the wild blue yonder… (Don’t worry, the code was QA checked. By another H1B. So you know it’s safe!)

    2. Agreed! It is complete baloney that she did not know about the H-4 visa. I am sure, just like most from India, she did not care what it is and ran off to the US. After all, the US (and the West) is the promised land! She probably has a huge family network here too. Now she wants to make it seem as she is victimized…

  5. To the best of my knowledge, a country that encourages talent. So H-4 visa holders who
    are qualified and skilled can be allowed to work and that will be a positive contribution to the

  6. Niyati my child congrats come out of golden cage and work for the nation. we in india r proud of you.

    Can you let me know what if a spouse like you is doing her RESIDENCY in USA on her spouse Visa H!B

    and he beats her, prompts her to divorce,iS there any solution that she may be able to continue her RESIDENCY in US without any blackmail from her husband . she has also one child of 5 yrs. IS THERE ANY PROVISION FOR CHANGE OF STATUS OF VISA SO THAT SHE MAY NOT SUFFER AT THE HANDS OF HER HUSBAND HOLDER OF H1B VISA.

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