U.S. to allow some H-1B worker spouses to work

About 97,000 people will be eligible for employment after the rule change

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The White House today said it is giving final approval to a rule change that will allow the spouses of some H-1B visa workers to get jobs.

Beginning May 26 -- 90 days from today -- the spouses of H-1B holders applying for permanent residency will be able to get work authorizations. Under current rules they cannot hold a job.

About 97,000 people will be eligible for employment in the first year of this rule change.

Many of the spouses are highly skilled, said Leon Rodriguez, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, during a telephone briefing for reporters. "They are in many cases, in their own right, high-skilled workers of the type that frequently seek H-1Bs," said Rodriguez.

The White House officials on the call were asked about an effort by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to increase the H-1B cap. Hatch's Immigration Innovation Act of 2015 (the "I-Squared" bill) calls for an increase in the annual base cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 195,000, and it eliminates the cap on people who earn advanced degrees in STEM (science, technology, education and math) fields.

Stand-alone H-1B bills have run into opposition in the past from supporters of comprehensive immigration reform.

On the prospects of the Hatch bill, should it make it to the president's desk, Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the administration has a "very strong preference to [take up the H-1B issue], as part of a comprehensive bill."

Munoz didn't say whether the White House would support the cap increases sought in the Hatch bill, if it is included in a comprehensive immigration bill.

IEEE-USA has said the Hatch bill will "help destroy" the U.S. workforce with guest workers. The engineering group favors permanent immigration instead of the use of guest workers, and applauded the decision to allow spouses of H-1B holders who are seeking green cards to apply for jobs.

"This is a useful reform that will improve the lives of thousands of H-1B families and recognizes that green cards are the goal," said Jim Jefferies, president of IEEE-USA. "But it is important to remember that most H-1B workers are never sponsored for green cards, particularly if they work for outsourcing companies."

IEEE-USA is critical of the displacement of U.S. workers with foreigners who hold H-1B visas. The organization has cited the replacement of 500 IT workers at Southern California Edison with H-1B workers employed by offshore providers of IT services as an abuse of the visa program.

Employment for H-1B spouses is controversial. During the period in which the government sought comments about the proposal, many people who shared their opinions on Regulations.gov said they saw the increase of skilled foreign workers as more competition for jobs.

However, during the phone briefing, White House officials argued that these permanent residents will help spur job growth.

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