Spouses Of H1B Visa Holders May Soon Be Able To Hold U.S. Jobs

With immigration overhaul a non-starter in Congress, advocates of change have been urging the Obama administration to make some changes on its own.

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With immigration reform a non-starter in Congress, those advocating reform have been urging the Obama administration to make changes on its own. And the first of those changes was announced this week. It involves the guest visa program known as H1B that allows highly skilled professionals from other countries to come to work in the U.S. The change would allow nearly 100,000 spouses of H1B visa holders to work as well. NPR's Kelly McEvers has the story.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Back in India, Priyancka More got a management degree and an MBA. She eventually landed a job managing the sales staff of a German jewelry company.

PRIYANCKA MORE: Three thousand staff was working under me. You can say hard-core sales, I was working Monday to Saturday nonstop.

MCEVERS: Then late last year More got married, to a guy who does IT work for a healthcare consulting firm here in the US. He's on an H1B visa. When More came to join him here in January, she realized she wasn't allowed to work unless a company would sponsor her.

MORE: It was really difficult to just sit idle and doing nothing and watching TV or resting for entire day and cooking or cleaning the house.

MCEVERS: More couldn't sleep at night. Her doctor diagnosed her with depression. She spent hours on the phone with her family.

MORE: And so finally it has happened that now we have taken a decision that I will go back to India as soon as possible.

MCEVERS: Like, this Saturday. And her husband will leave in September. This is exactly what the administration doesn't want to happen with H1B visa holders, so officials this week proposed a new rule that says spouses of H1B visa holders who are in the process of applying for green cards can work in the U.S. too.

Officials say the rule will enter a two-month comment phase, then will go into effect soon after. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker told reporters the rule will keep H1B visa holders in the U.S.

PENNY PRITZKER: These individuals are American families in waiting, many who tire of waiting for green cards to become available and leave the country to work for our competition.

MCEVERS: Neha Maha's husband is in the process of applying for a green card. He's a Java coder, she was a TV journalist back in India. Here's what she says about the new rule.

NEHA MAHA: Too good to be true, certainly, because I couldn't believe six years of my life I have been just waiting and waiting and waiting that something will come eventually.

MCEVERS: Economists say for every high-tech job like Maha's husband's, other jobs like lawyers, nurses, teachers and construction workers are created. It's known as the multiplier effect. But critics of the H1B program say it allows American companies to attract younger, cheaper foreign workers and push qualified Americans out.

That's what happened to Gene Nelson. He was a fiberoptics engineer at Genuity, a spinoff of GTE. Then in 2001 he was told to train some H1B visa holders how to do his job. A few weeks later...

GENE NELSON: Brought into a room with a few of my peers and we were all told you no longer have a position with Genuity.

MCEVERS: Nelson now teaches physics at a community college. Despite its critics, immigration analysts like lawyer Eli Kantor told me the new rule for H1B spouses was the least controversial.

Of all the reforms for the administration to take up on its own, in lieu of a bill being passed by Congress, how would you characterize this?

ELI KANTOR: Very minimal. Very minimal, and it's trying to ameliorate the problem on the margins.

MCEVERS: Kantor says the original program would have applied to all H1B spouses, not just the ones of people already in the process of getting citizenship. But even that proposal, he says, was watered down. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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