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Trump plans to rescind work permits for spouses of immigrants on H-1B visas

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07/27/2018 12:42 PM
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Trump plans to rescind work permits for spouses of immigrants on H-1B visas
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Kavya Joseph was working at one of the top four accounting firms in her home country of India prior to her marriage, which prompted a shift to the United States due to her husband’s work.

Joseph’s husband immigrated to the US on an H-1B visa, typically awarded to high-skilled foreign workers. Joseph followed him on a dependent visa, known as H4, granted to spouses and children of immigrant workers.

But despite her credentials, Joseph was unable to legally work in the US as part of the country’s restrictions on H4 visas.

“I was trying to engage myself in other hobbies,” she said, “but that didn’t give me a self-satisfaction.

“I was getting lazier day by day, sitting at home, but helpless at the same time.”

Joseph’s fortunes took a change in 2015, when Barack Obama’s administration implemented a rule that granted work permits to certain immigrants on H4 visas. Known as H4EAD, the policy enabled the spouses of H-1B workers who were already awaiting green cards to apply for employment authorization.

But now Donald Trump’s administration is expected to formally rescind the Obama-era rule – potentially upending the lives of tens of thousands of immigrants who took advantage of the H4EAD work permits.

The proposed rules change, which was anticipated last month, but has not yet been announced, is part of the Trump administration’s efforts to reshape America’s immigration system.

Advocates laboring to save the Obama-era policy say doing away with the rule could once again confine immigrant spouses, mostly women, at home and strip their families of a necessary second income.

Beneficiaries of the Obama-era guidance, such as Joseph, said the employment status brought financial security to their households and provided a sense of purpose.

Joseph is one of thousands of advocates who have joined an online campaign, “SaveH4EAD”, to raise awareness around the issue in the hopes that the Trump administration might reverse course. Many are high-skilled workers who sacrificed their careers when their spouses were offered the chance to pursue a career in the US.

“It will shatter my career completely,” said Joseph, who was able to secure a job under the program as a credit analyst at a bank in Washington state, of the prospect of the H4EAD rule being revoked. “Why would we end our career just because we moved to another country?”

The Department of Homeland Security announced plans in December to do away with the rule, suggesting it was following through with the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order signed by Trump in April of 2017.

The president, who has sharply criticized the H-1B visa program while pushing for a more restrictive immigration agenda, said his executive order was intended “to ensure that American labor is hired to do the job”. Although it did not specifically target H4 visa holders, Trump’s policy called for a review of the H-1B visa program and subsequent reforms.

The H-1B visa program has served as the primary vehicle for bringing high-skilled workers to the US, with a significant faction working in the tech industry. The Trump administration has contended employers are abusing the program to recruit cheap labor from overseas.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which was tasked with overseeing a review of employment-based visa programs, has yet to reach a final decision about H4 work permits.

“The agency is considering a number of policy and regulatory changes to carry out the President’s Buy American, Hire American Executive Order,” USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said in a statement.

“USCIS is focused on safeguarding the integrity of our immigration system and ensuring its faithful execution so that the wages and working conditions of US workers are protected”

Proponents of the Obama-era rule point out those eligible to apply were immigrants already awaiting green cards.

Felicia Escobar, a former special assistant to Obama who was involved in crafting the policy, referred to its beneficiaries as “Americans-in-waiting”.

The Trump administration has “a very different view” of the immigration system, Escobar said, that places emphasis on “enforcing the laws and keeping people out”.

“We looked at it from the perspective of, we need to have rules, but we also need to honor our legacy of welcoming dreamers and strivers.”

A webpage dedicated to the SaveH4EAD campaign largely consists of stories told by immigrant spouses in their own words.

Kanupriya, an MBA executive who chose to identify herself by only her first name, said she had “always been an independent and strong girl” and thus struggled with suddenly having to rely on her husband after the couple settled in the US.

“It was an inexplicable feeling seeing your husband going out for work everyday and while I waited for him at end of the day alone doing household chores,” she wrote.

The H4EAD rule enabled her to to rejoin the workforce. It also placed her in a better position to pay off student loans and contribute toward costs of living.

Losing that sense of security, she said, would push her “towards melancholy”.

Such anecdotes are familiar to Leon Rodriguez, who was director of the USCIC under Obama when the rule was issued. He recalled scores of daily emails from people urging the administration to implement the rule, saying it affected decisions that included whether to buy a house or stay in the country all together.

“All of those decisions were on hold because the families struggled on just the one salary,” he said.

It isn’t immediately clear if the Trump administration will rescind the rule for future applicants or also strip work permits from those who have them. Under the current policy, applicants who are approved must then renew their status every two years.

The Trump administration was initially poised to begin the rescission process earlier this year but delayed the matter until June. The efforts by proponents of the policy to draw attention to the issue have not been entirely in vain.