The fate of some 200,000 foreign citizens living and working in the United States is resting with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Trump White House and a federal appeals court.
At issue is work authorization for holders of the H-4 visa, who are spouses of foreign nationals employed in the U.S. under the H-1B visa.
Homeland Security this week updated the schedule for a new rule removing that authorization, saying it would publish the proposed rule this month.
University of Tennessee researchers have estimated that 100,000 people, mostly Indian women, have the work authorization.
Spouses of H-1B workers on track for green cards have been allowed to work in the United States since 2015, when Homeland Security under the administration of former president Barack Obama published a new rule, first proposed in 2011, authorizing their employment.
“Allowing the eligible class of H-4 dependent spouses to work encourages professionals with high demand skills to remain in the country and help spur the innovation and growth of U.S. companies,” the agency said in proposing the rule.
Under the administration of President Donald Trump, Homeland Security has changed its messaging on the work authorization. In proposing to strip the right to work from the H-4 visa holders, the agency said in an online notification late last year that, “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.”
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The move by Homeland Security is part of a broader crackdown by the Trump administration on the H-1B visa. Silicon Valley’s tech industry, including large companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple, rely heavily on the H-1B and have pushed for an expansion of the annual 85,000 cap on new visas, arguing it’s necessary for securing the world’s top talent.
Critics point to reported abuses by outsources, and contend that the visa is used to supplant U.S. workers with cheaper foreign labor, and to drive down wages.
While Homeland Security has said in this week’s notice it will publish its proposed rule this month — which is expected to trigger a public comment period before any final approval — the agency has several times missed its own deadlines for publication since first proposing cutting the work authorization in 2017.
Bay Area software engineer Ranjana Varadarajan, an Indian citizen on the H-4 visa, said the prospect of losing her right to work makes her worried about her professional future.
“In the tech industry we should not have any gaps in our career,” she said. “We have to keep updating ourselves.” If the government bans her and other H-4 holders from employment, she will have no other choice but to leave the U.S. and live apart from her husband because she won’t give up her career, Varadarajan said.