April 30, 2018

Give Foreign Spouses of Temporary Workers the Right to Work



The Trump administration is expected to reverse a 2015 rule that gave employment authorization to some spouses of H-1B visa holders. Such a rollback would disrupt business, reduce productivity in the U.S. economy, and place new burdens on families, as I detail in a new Policy Brief released today. Moreover, undoing the rule will force thousands of women—who constitute the overwhelming majority of these spouses—out of the workplace during this era of female empowerment.

In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security published a final rule that provided a pathway to work authorization for the spouses of H-1B holders who were in the green-card line. Before that change, all spouses on the so-called H-4 visa were unable to work, regardless of skill or education level. The rule has allowed tens of thousands of  spouses to earn a paycheck and gain work experience over the last three years.

As I detail in the brief, rolling back work authorization is harmful because bars on employment hurt families. A spousal visa without the opportunity to work often isolates the spouse in a new country and strains the principal because the family has only one income stream. Furthermore, spouses on dependent visas are more likely to suffer violence from their partner, a situation that employment—by reducing family stress and giving the spouse an independent personal network—could alleviate. In its rulemaking, DHS anticipated that extending employment opportunities would “reduce personal and economic burdens” on families.

The shortfalls of the non-employment policy also impact the wider national economy. The DHS rulemaking noted that the department received comments from both employers that lost valued H-1B employees because of their spouses’ lack of work and immigrants themselves who left the United States for more flexible employment options. Retaining top talent is crucial to ensure a productive workforce.

Giving spouses the right to work would bring the United States in line with other countries competing for high-valued immigrants. The U.S. economy is at the frontier of innovation, and highly-skilled immigrants can produce more here than they would elsewhere. The U.S. economy and the global marketplace are benefitted when these individuals can maximize their contributions.

With that in mind, attracting talent to where it is most productive globally requires us to remember that immigration is a family affair. Skilled immigrants looking for opportunities in the United States often have families to consider and support. For example, the National Science Foundation found the most common justification scientists and engineers gave for coming to the United States was “family-related reasons.”

The H-4 visa needs to be modernized. Right now, the visa fails to meet the needs of visa holders, their families, and the broader American economy. Rather than remove work authorizations and restrict the options for H-4 spouses to engage in meaningful employment, this administration—which has advocated for an immigration system based more on merit and skills—should seek to leverage the talents and capacities of the ambitious spouses of today’s foreign-born workforce.

Feminism in the workplace takes many forms, all of which should further an environment of inclusive opportunities for all women. Blocking H-4 visa holders—overwhelmingly women— from working unfairly lessens opportunities for immigrant women while damaging the U.S. economy.

To read the full brief, please click here.