Among the visa categories issued by the U.S., the category of H4 visas will potentially undergo an overhaul in the immigration law changes proposed this year. In its commitment to attract and retain skilled laborers, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proposed extending work authorizations to spouses of highly-skilled immigrants. H4 visa holders, also referred as “dependents,” are spouses or children of H1-B category workers residing in the U.S.
An H4 visa holder is currently allowed to stay for up to six years in the U.S. They are not, however, eligible for a Social Security Number (SSN) or granted the right to gain profitable employment. H4 visa holders are permitted to own a bank account, obtain a driver’s license and are issued an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for tax purposes in the U.S. They are also allowed to study on the visa. They are not, however, qualified to apply for a student loan. With nearly 30,000 H4 visas issued annually, there has also been a petition filed to address the increasing feeling of dissatisfaction among H4 visa holders, chiefly wives, who are forced to remain unemployed.
Under the sanction, spouses have to wait until they procure their Green Card before they can go to work. The current wait time for immigrants from China is six years, and for Filipinos as much as seven years. Indians have to wait at least 11 years. According to Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce, many couples tire of waiting for their Green Cards and leave the U.S. to find work in other countries. Australia and Canada are countries which participate more aggressively in the global competition for highly-trained workers in science, technology and engineering. As a result these countries operate more generous policies for the families of the immigrant workers that they desire.
The proposed change will allow H4 dependent spouses to gain employment authorization, as long as the H-1B worker has initiated the process for a lawful permanent residence in the U.S through their employment company. Once the new immigration laws have been implemented, the DHS will start issuing Employment Authorization Cards (EAD). The change will benefit almost 100,000 H4 visa holders in 2014.
With this proposed change in the law, immigrants can remain in the country while they wait, and their spouses on H4 visas would be able to work during the waiting period for Green Cards as well. Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat representing a Californian district with voluminous immigrant communities, has commended the proposed change as a good start in protecting immigrant families. Chu said that the policy of denying spouses the right to work is ill-conceived and has gone on too long.
Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is confident that these reforms “will help the U.S. maintain competitiveness with other countries in our efforts to attract the best and the brightest high-skilled workers from around the world.” The discretion for this proposed change in the immigration law will fall to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Unlike the comprehensive reforms which were passed by the Senate, but is stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives, there is very little chance that the reform will get strangled in Congress.
As the ruling on visas awaits a decision, many large software companies are waiting, hoping that the change will mean that they will soon be able to bring in qualified H1-B workers who do not want to immigrate due to the H4 dependent immigration laws. In order for them to do this, the laws will need to change first.
By Nilofar Neemuchwala
U.S. Department of Homeland Security