H-1B visas

Trump's Plan to Strip Work Visas from Talented Immigrant Wives Won't Make America Great Again

No immigrant of any kind is safe from this administration's assaults.


The Trump administration's malice toward immigrants isn't only evident in harsh deportation and other enforcement policies. You

Silicon Valley

can also see it in the White House's acts of gratuitous pettiness. Case in point: the recent declaration that it plans to revoke the work authorization of spouses of foreign techies on H-1B visas.

Unlike almost every other visa category, spouses of H-1Bs, 90 percent of whom are women, receive H-4 visas that allow them to live in the country but, until recently, not work or start a business. Spouses of diplomats, investors on E visas, and intra-company transfers on L visas have never faced such restrictions.

This didn't make any sense. But it didn't matter all that much when transitioning from H-1Bs to green cards took only a couple of years. But in the last decade, average wait times have ballooned to six years. And for tech workers from China and India, wait times are now approaching two decades. This means that Chinese and Indian H-1B spouses are effectively frozen out of the U.S. labor market during their most productive years. Currently, about 1.5 million H-1B families are stuck in green card limbo land.

Former President Barack Obama partially fixed this perverse situation in the waning hours of his tenure, and handed work authorization to about 125,000 of these spouses if their husbands had jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops (like obtaining a labor certification from the feds attesting that there were no qualified American to do what they do) and filed a completed green card application. This brought U.S. practice somewhat in line with other industrialized countries such as Canada and Australia, which hand instant work authorization to spouses in order to attract high-tech talent.

But a group called Save Jobs USA, represented by lawyers from the nativist Center for Immigration Studies, sued the Obama administration, claiming that its reprieve to these spouses meant that for every one H-1B visa, America would now "import" two foreign workers—as if "importing" unproductive people were somehow economically preferable. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, noting that the plaintiffs had failed to offer any convincing evidence of "irreparable harm"—which is not surprising given that these spouses make up a mere 0.001 of the total American workforce. Indeed, even if one accepts the false zero-sum economic math of nativists, in which every job gain by a foreigner means a job loss by an American, automation "destroys" more jobs in two months than all the H-4 spouses who have ever received work authorization.

The nativist group appealed and, instead of defending the rule in court, the Trump administration requested one delay after another until the court put its foot down and gave the administration until Jan. 2 to file its brief. But a couple of weeks ago the administration declared that to advance this president's protectionist "Buy American, Hire American" policies, it plans to rescind the rule. It is unclear whether it will do so retroactively and take away the work authorization of spouses who already have it, let it lapse, or just stop handing new authorization to future H-4s.

Regardless, this is a tragedy for women for whom jobs mean not only income and independence, but also a ticket out of loneliness and social isolation. They often have few friends or family in their new country and jobs are a way to enter mainstream society and assimilate. Incidentally, it is curious that the very restrictionists who relentlessly attack immigrants for not assimilating are also the ones most aggressively fighting to take away the most effective tool immigrants have for assimilation: jobs.

Many H-4 wives try to overcome their boredom by having children, which is why in techie circles H-4 visas are darkly referred to as "involuntary housewife" visas. But raising a family on a single income, especially in high-cost IT hubs like Silicon Valley where foreign tech workers tend to cluster, isn't easy, especially when they have obligations back home.

But the economic downside to America is also tremendous. Highly qualified professionals tend to marry similarly qualified mates. Many of them abandon successful careers back home to come to this "land of opportunity." Confining them to a life of household drudgery means squandering the most precious resource: human talent. Indeed, what has made America great is its particular genius in ferreting out this resource even among the "huddled masses" that have washed up on our shores. Forcing highly talented and ambitious spouses to sit at home instead of making economic contributions, especially when high-tech sectors are facing an exceedingly tight labor market with jobs waiting months to fill, makes zero economic sense.

So why is President Trump dong this?

It's simple. Trump's attack on foreign spouses is part of a general strategy to score political points with his nativist base by making life as miserable as possible for as many immigrants as possible. Indeed, in addition to going after spouses of H-1Bs, Trump has launched a war on H-1Bs themselves, despite these visas enjoying near sacrosanct status in pre-Trump conservative circles. For example, renewing their visas used to be a routine matter. Now, the administration has declared it will subject workers to the same onerous scrutiny as when they first applied in a naked bid to raise the compliance costs for companies that hire H-1Bs. So much for regulatory relief!

Immigrants will pay a price for Trump's wrong-headed views for sure. But so will the rest of the country.

This column originally appeared in The Week.