Welcome Executive Action on Highly Skilled Immigrants

May 9, 2014

This week, the Department of Homeland Security announced the publication of two rules: one to extend employment authorization to spouses of certain H-1B workers, and another to enhance opportunities for highly-skilled workers by removing obstacles to their remaining in the United States.  DHS characterized these rules as “part of the Administration’s continuing commitment to attract and retain highly skilled immigrants.”

CCIA commends this commitment and welcomes these actions, particularly the employment authorization for spouses of H-1B workers.  Enabling spouses to work and help support the households of H-1B workers who are waiting for their green cards would dramatically improve their quality of life during what can be a years-long wait.

Under current law, spouses of H-1B workers cannot work in the U.S. while H-1B workers wait for a green card.  This places an enormous burden on their households, as the wait for a green card places them in a procedural limbo in which the worker cannot be promoted or significantly change their job description.  This limbo could last for years depending on the size of the green card backlog.  Despite this uncertainty, H-1B workers have had to be the sole supporters of their families.

As a former single H-1B worker (I could barely support myself back then, let alone a family), I can understand what a severe burden this places on them.  It makes no sense to make life harder than necessary for foreign born talent the U.S. needs and should be welcoming.  Work authorization for H-1B spouses is a common-sense proposal, and the administration should be commended for acting on it.

While this particular executive action is a welcome measure, enactment of comprehensive immigration reform by Congress is needed to address the larger problems of immigration.  House Republicans have consistently opposed executive action on immigration, with Speaker John Boehner saying such action would “spoil the well to the point where no one will trust him by giving him a new law.”

On the other hand, at the Urban Institute’s “Discussion on Immigration Reform” event this week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the threat of executive action “not a prohibitor but an inspiration” for Congressional action.  We shall see which view is correct.  However, if the administration does decide to take executive action in the absence of Congressional action, Republicans would loudly denounce it, thereby giving the immigration issue the very prominence that some Republicans would rather avoid.  If that were to happen, Republicans would be faced with having to fight something with nothing, which means it would seem to behoove them to have a Republican version of reform ready in their arsenal when that time comes.

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