In a rare move that flies in the face of anti-immigrant rhetoric in some corners of the U.S. the Department of Homeland Security announced in recent weeks that it was proposing to provide employment authorisation to H-4 visa holders, who are spouse-dependents of principal H-1B “non-immigrant” visa holders.

In taking this progressive step the DHS has however clarified that it planned to extend employment authorisation only to those within the H4 population who “have begun the process of seeking lawful permanent resident status through employment and have extended their authorised period of admission,” in the U.S.

The latest developments follow a series of articles in The Hindu last July (‘For Indian women in America, a sea of broken dreams,’ July 29, 2012 and ‘On the H-4, a trail of misery and lonely battles,’ July 30, 2012). which spotlighted the debilitating personal circumstances faced by many “H4s.” These included depression, loss of enthusiasm and self-esteem associated with joblessness and social isolation, in numerous cases leading to mental health issues or familial breakdown.

The DHS in its notification of proposed amendments to the law appeared to cognise an important point made in the articles, that restrictions on the right of H4 spouses to work in the U.S. could affect the decision of the principal H1B worker to remain in employment here.

In this regard the DHS said that it “recognises that the limitation on the period of stay is not the only event that could cause an H-1B worker to leave his or her employment and cause disruption to the employer's business, inclusive of the loss of significant time and money invested in the immigration process... This rule will encourage H-1B skilled workers to not abandon their adjustment application because their H-4 spouse is unable to work.”

The proposed rules granting employment rights to some H4 visa holders were also “intended to mitigate some of the negative economic effects of limiting H-1B households to one income during lengthy waiting periods in the adjustment of status process,” the DHS noted.

Calls for relaxing the restrictions placed on H4 visa holders have come amidst growing expectations that President Barack Obama may address the complex issue of comprehensive immigration reform during his second term in office.

While opposition to reform has primarily been rooted in concerns over further loss in American jobs to new immigrants, proponents have made the case that fewer work restrictions for H-4 dependent spouses, for example, might encourage “professionals with high demand skills to remain in the country and help spur the innovation and growth of U.S. companies,” and the DHS appeared to support this view in its notes.

Applicants seeking to obtain the right to work in the U.S. on this basis should however bear in mind that the proposed changes would only impact spouses of H-1B workers who have been admitted or have extended their stay under the provisions of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act of 2000 or AC21.

Also it may take at least six months or more for the new rule to get formalised given that the rule is only in the proposal stage and would need to be discussed and passed by the government.

Pre-emptively addressing any suggestions that the new rules could take away jobs from American residents the DHS said, “Allowing certain H-4 spouses the opportunity to work would result in a negligible increase to the overall domestic labour force. The benefits of this rule are retaining highly-skilled persons who intend to adjust to lawful permanent resident status. This is important when considering the contributions of these individuals to the U.S. economy, including advances in entrepreneurial and research and development endeavours, which are highly correlated with overall economic growth and job creation.”

It added that the proposed amendments would also bring U.S. immigration laws more in line with other countries that seek to attract skilled foreign workers.