April 4, 2019

How DHS Threatens to Trap Highly Skilled Women at Home



In February, the Department of Homeland Security submitted a regulation to the Office of Management and Budget removing the rule that allows H-4 visa holders—the spouses of people here under the high-skilled H-1B visa—to legally work if they have a pending green card petition. The notice of proposed rulemaking is likely to appear as early as this month. Removing the H-4 Employment Authorization Document (EAD) rule will hurt immigrant families, make the United States less attractive a destination to high-skilled workers around the world, reduce the wages and employment of American workers, and slow economic growth.

As my colleague Matthew La Corte explained in his brief about the visa last year, H-4 visa holders are overwhelmingly women. Until 2015, they were forbidden from working until they received green cards, which often can take decades. In a substantial number of cases, it takes over a century—long after the applicant is dead.

The 2015 EAD rule did not change things for most H-4 visa holders, but it did make a difference for those who are actively waiting for green cards with an approved I-140 petition. Over 90,000—more than 93 percent of whom are women—received work authorization under the rule, and more would have become eligible over time. Reversing the rule would harm not only the visa holders and their families, but also Americans who benefit from their work.

The motivation for the H-4 visa was to keep families stable by allowing guest workers to bring along their families. However, work restrictions can undermine family stability by forcing one spouse to sacrifice her career, independence, and income. In fact, some research even suggests that the dependency of a derivative visa can put women at greater risk of intimate partner violence. One H-4 holder said that she feels like the restrictions put her “in a cage.”

In an op-ed published last month in the Houston Chronicle, another H-4 visa holder expressed her frustration that despite her high educational attainment and skills—she graduated with a 4.0 GPA and a master’s degree from the University of Houston—she has had little option but to spend her days “sitting at home, lonely and bored,” even though she knew employers who were interested in hiring her. Her story is all too typical. Most H-4 visa holders are highly skilled—most have at least a master’s degree—but are forbidden from using those skills in the workforce.

In a cost-benefit analysis published in Regulation magazine, economists Ike Brannon and M. Kevin McGee estimate that the net effect of ending the EAD program would be to reduce U.S. GDP by about $7.5 billion annually. They conclude that removing the rule would have “substantial costs to the U.S. economy, to federal and state tax coffers, and to U.S. employers’ ability to attract H-1B workers” and “no employment or income gains by workers to offset those losses.”

While the administration’s stated motivation behind removing the rule is that they believe it undercuts American workers, Brannon and McGee point out that any of the small gains to natives in competition with H-4 visa holders would be outweighed by the severe costs borne by natives who are employed by H-4 visa holders running their own businesses. The removal of the EAD rule threatens to shutter startups founded by H-4 entrepreneurs and leave their employees jobless.

And it is not just the benefits of H-4 workers that are threatened by the rule. According to Brannon and McGee’s survey, more than one in four H-4 visa holders reported that their EADs were an important factor in their families’ decisions to stay in the United States. In other words, H-4 EADs help to retain H-1B workers themselves. Ending the EAD program would encourage some of the most highly skilled immigrants to turn to other countries.

In another analysis of the potential effect of the removal of the EAD rule, Jacqueline Varas at the American Action Forum estimates that barring H-4 visa holders from the economy could reduce GDP by up to $13 billion each year. She estimates this would be felt most strongly in the professional-, scientific-, and technical-services industries, followed by manufacturing and finance.

Americans are better off when the country is attractive to high-skilled foreign workers and when immigrants can integrate into the economy. Kicking working immigrants out of the labor force is counterproductive and will hurt natives and immigrants alike.