The Trump administration’s crackdown on documented immigration moved one major step forward Wednesday, when the Department of Homeland Security sent to the Office of Management and Budget a proposed rule to ban employment for the spouses of H-1B visa holders.
The ban would affect about 90,000 spouses, or H-4 visa holders, a vast majority of whom are women from India with advanced degrees and years of work experience. OMB is expected to review the draft rule, a process that could take up to several weeks and will be followed by a public comment period. Following the public comment period, which could last anywhere from one month to six months, the rule could be finalized.
H-1B visas are typically awarded to highly skilled immigrants, many of whom work in the tech industry, academia, research, or non-profit institutions. Spouses of those immigrants are allowed to live in the United States under H-4 visas.
Under the Obama administration, certain H-4 visa holders were granted the right to work, a policy that arose as a result of massive delays in per-country immigrant visa backlogs as individuals waited years to receive green cards.
Since taking office, President Donald Trump has made the elimination of the work authorization a key priority, believing that both the H-1B and H-4 visas allow companies to hire cheap foreign labor, while shutting U.S. citizens out of the job market.
“Some 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,” the Homeland Security Department said in its notice about the proposed rule.
Most work visas, including the H-1B, have a labor test component, which requires employers to first demonstrate that U.S. nationals were considered for jobs before moving forward with hiring immigrants. However, the H-4 visa program does not, allowing recipients to work in a variety of sectors of their choosing.
“But the fact is that these individuals would have green cards [were it not] for the major backlogs in the [immigration] system,” Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, told ThinkProgress. “And if they had green cards, they would be able to work anywhere.”
Pierce said the end of the program could be “devastating” for families, adding that because the work authorization is only available to individuals who have already been living in the United States for several years, the ban could upend the lives of longtime residents who will either be forced to self-deport or be separated from their spouses.
Major tech companies have lobbied against the prohibition, arguing that it is economically disadvantageous for the United States. In April 2018, the Silicon Valley-backed immigration lobbying group FWD.us, founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, released a report claiming that rescinding the H-4 employment program “and removing tens of thousands of people from the American workforce would be devastating to families, and would hurt our economy.”
The Trump administration first announced its plans to end the program in 2017, in the context of a lawsuit against the 2015 Obama-era executive order that granted the work permits. The crackdown on H-4 work authorizations is just a small component of Trump’s scrutiny of the H-1B program. In 2017, Trump called for a review of the process, triggering an increase in the number of “requests for evidence” notices sent by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to applicants, dragging out the process for individuals filing for extensions and triggering deportations.
“The Trump administration really dislikes executive programs. That’s one of their constant refrains,” Pierce said, adding that the move to eliminate the H-4 work authorization is similar to the Trump administration’s approach to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children from deportation.
Indeed, Trump’s crackdown on both undocumented and documented immigration has stretched across a wide swath of programs, from placing caps on the number of refugees admitted to the United States, to implementing stricter student visa rules, to instituting on ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries.