H-1B visa: Premium processing resumes, work permits for spouses to end
The US is set to end work permits for H-1B spouses. Source: Brandon Mowinkel/Unsplash

Fast processing for all H-1B applications filed on or before December 21, 2018, resumed last week, after being suspended for fresh applications since last April.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced in late January that the expedited 15-day processing would resume for applications filed in April 2018 for the fiscal year 2019 visa lottery. In mid-February, USCIS extended this service to include all H-1B applications filed on or before December 21, 2018. It isn’t clear whether applications filed from Dec 22, 2018 onwards would qualify for premium processing.

Speaking to Business Standard, Everest Group CEO Peter Bendor-Samuel said: “The importance of this development goes beyond the reinstatement of the accelerated H-1B application as it signals a change in policy from the administration, with regard to high-skill immigration. The Indian firms will benefit from this.”

The expedited process allows visas to be approved within 15 days, instead of the usual months-long review period.

The H-1B is a popular visa programme for US companies to hire international students and foreign-born workers with specialist knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher. It is valid for six years and can be renewed if the visa-holder is in the midst of applying for permanent residency in the US.

Congress caps such visas to 65,000 per year plus an additional 20,000 H-1B visas per year for foreigners who have a graduate degree from a US academic institution. Following a rule issued recently by the Department of Homeland Security, the latter group with US graduate degrees will now be prioritised.

Under the Trump Administration, the popular visa programme has faced an onslaught of restrictions. Already based on chance due to its lottery selection system, the programme was further tightened with more rules, such as requesting petitioners to provide more documentary proof, increasing inspections and reversing the Obama-era rule that once let students’ spouses work legally in the US.

While the return of premium processing offers some respite to H-1B applicants, their spouses face a comparatively grim future.

Bloomberg Law reported that USCIS has completed its proposed regulation to end a programme that allows spouses of H-1B workers, who’ve been approved for green cards, to work legally in the US. The proposal to end these work permits, also known as employment authorization documents (EADs), was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review February 20, 2018.

The proposed regulation is now going through the rule-making process, which means it still needs to be published and made open for public comment before it can be issued into a finalised regulation with those comments included.

The move will affect roughly 90,000 foreign nationals, the majority of which are Indian. While H-1B visa holders are often billed as the “foreign talent” the US needs, their spouses – of which 90 percent are women – who are equally as educated, are forgotten. Almost all (96 percent) have at least a bachelor’s degree, with 29 percent earning them at a US college or university, according to a survey by SaveH4EAD, a group dedicated to preserving the work programme.

Support for spouses and families are important factors for international students when deciding a study abroad course or country. This consideration applies long after graduation, when said students stay on to work in the host country.

Removing the H-4 EAD programme could mean the loss of this financial lifeline, especially for families living in expensive areas like San Francisco, where families depend on the dual income of two working parents.

In an email to Bloomberg Law, Facebook Inc. spokesman Anthony Harrison said: “Our objective is to always obtain independent work authorisation for employees where possible and we are actively working with employees who might be impacted.

“This proposal is disappointing, especially since those who hold H4 are here legally but their ability to work is being withdrawn,” he said.

It’s a move that could hamper the country’s innovation and economic growth, too. Disappointed at the elimination of the H-4EAD programme, Cisco’s Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer Francine Katsoudas called for more protection and support for foreign-born employees and their families.

“If we want to see continued innovation and economic growth, we must have an environment where families feel they are supported,” she said.

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