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May 7, 2013 at 7:03 AM

H-1B visas good for skilled foreign workers, not so good for the accompanying spouses

Ananya Rabeya, is an H-4 dependent spouse who cannot legally work in the U.S. She volunteers as a tutor at Yesler Terrace. (Photo: Marcus Yam/The Seattle Times)

Ananya Rabeya, is an H-4 dependent spouse who cannot legally work in the U.S. She volunteers as a tutor at Yesler Terrace.
(Photo: Marcus Yam/The Seattle Times)

Recent Seattle Times stories about the H-1B visa program offered a lot of food for thought on immigration reform. The first story explored whether technology companies and other leading industries use this area of the immigration law to favor skilled foreign workers over equally skilled American workers. Some labor economists argue that American companies take the easy way out by hiring from abroad rather than choosing unemployed American workers with similar skills. Other labor economists, joined by Microsoft, Facebook and other technology companies, argue that thousands of jobs would go unfilled if not for the visa program.

The second story shined a spotlight on the lives of spouses of H-1B visa holders. They hold the immigration status of H-4 visa spouse. They are often educated and experienced in their field but they are not legally authorized to work. They do not have a Social Security number. Some are able to seek H-1B visas on their own – a time-consuming and expensive process for employers – or the spouses may take classes and hold out hope for one day returning to the workforce either here or in their native country.

These spouses, largely women, are not sitting idly at home. They make up the smart volunteer corps visible in local classrooms, libraries and community organizations. But for those who want to work  and contribute to the local economy there ought to be a way to accommodate them. Hope lies in the gargantuan immigration bill scheduled for a vote in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The 844–page bill includes language authorizing the spouse of foreign workers to work. The caveat: work authorization is granted only to those whose home countries offer reciprocal treatment for spouses of U.S. citizens working abroad. Strangely, India is not one of the countries. Lawmakers should explain why not.

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