Time appears to be almost up for more than 100,000 foreign citizens working in the United States under an Obama-era special authorization for spouses of foreign workers here on the H-1B visa.
When Congress failed legislatively to address the lengthy wait times for many professionals and their families to be granted resident status, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in 2015, under the Obama administration, issued a regulation to allow H-4 visa spouses of qualified H-1B professionals to apply for an employment authorization document (EAD). Some members of Congress complained that the executive branch was overstepping its authority by making law—which is Congress's job—and the regulation was the subject of much debate during the last presidential election. Now the Trump administration is seeking to make good on the President's campaign promise to eliminate EADs for H-4 spouses.
This change especially impacts US employers of people born in India.
The reason why Indian-born professionals are impacted is because there are numerical limits on the number of green cards granted each year. To promote the diversity of new immigrants to the US, there are quota limits on the place of birth. No more than 7 percent of the total number of family-sponsored and employment-based visas available in a fiscal year may be issued to natives of any one independent country. As the demand for Indian-born professionals is far greater than the annual supply of green cards under the quota, this has created a backlog.
In 2018 for instance, the backlog of Indian-born professionals waiting their turn to get a green card was well in excess of a half million individuals. As a result, it now takes many years for an Indian-born professional to receive his or her green card. As a consequence, Indian-born professionals comprise the bulk of H-4 EAD holders.
Under the current regulation, an H-4 spouse can request an EAD if the H-1B professional is the beneficiary of either an approved employment-based immigrant visa petition, or a Department of Labor alien employment certification application or employment-based immigrant visa petition filed at least 365 days prior to the end of the sixth year of the professional's H-1B status.
In April 2017, President Trump signed the "Buy American and Hire American" executive order, which, among other things, directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in coordination with other agencies, to review H-1B-related policies. The H-4 EAD regulation was one of the policies reviewed and the result was its proposed elimination.
US employers rely on H-1B professionals to make up for the shortage of qualified American professionals while keeping jobs in the US. CEOs of major US companies, sent a letter to DHS opposing the plan to eliminate the H-4 EAD. The letter pointed out that "[t]hese spouses are often highly skilled in their own rights," and "revoking their US work authorization will likely cause high-skilled immigrants to take their skills to competitors outside the United States."
These US employers found some support in Congress. Senators Kamala D. Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand sent a letter to DHS and USCIS opposing rescission of the H-4 EAD, pointing out that the proposed change would disproportionately impact South Asian women (in 2017, 94 percent of H-4 EAD were women and 93 percent were from India).
But the administration has not changed its position. In November 2018, DHS published its mid-year regulatory agenda, which included a proposed rule to revoke the H-4 employment authorization final rule. DHS stated that "[s]ome U.S. workers would benefit from this proposed rule by having a better chance at obtaining jobs that some of the population of the H-4 workers currently hold, as the proposed rule would no longer allow H-4 workers to enter the labor market early." With record low unemployment levels and US employers already complaining of recruiting problems, it is unclear where the DHS thinks employers will find these US workers.
The new rule, if adopted, is expected to become effective in the first half of 2019 and would impact all 100,000+ individuals currently holding an H-4 EAD. Researchers also estimate that the proposed rule will affect entire families, including the H-1B professionals themselves, because many will not be able to afford to live on one income if their dependent spouse is forced to abandon his or her career. This is especially true in areas such as Seattle and the Silicon Valley, which employ high numbers of H-1B workers and have a high cost of living. Entire families may leave the US, taking their job skills to other countries to compete with their former employers—whose only options to remain competitive may be to outsource the jobs or set up their own offshore facilities. Nearshoring to Canada has become increasingly popular, due to the relatively lower cost of doing business there and proximity to the US.
The direct cost of each failed expatriate assignment is estimated to range from $250,000 to $1 million, according to researchers. More important, the departure of these highly skilled workers represents a brain drain and a significant loss of talent for most companies.
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