Published On: Sat, Nov 22nd, 2014

Obama boost for H1-B spouses & students – President’s initiative set to ease curbs on right to work and extend post-studies window

With a 15-minute speech last night that will resonate in many homes in India, US President Barack Obama created a small but potentially new vote bank for his Democratic party: the spouses of thousands of Indian H1-B visa holders in the US.

In a series of sweeping steps bypassing the elected legislature through an executive order, Obama has brightened the lives of Indians who live in America under the H1-B dispensation as well as their spouses. The President has also given Indian students in US universities expanded opportunities to stay and work in America after they finish their studies.

Ever since the H1-B guest worker visas began attracting tens of thousands of Indian and other high-tech employees to America, their qualified spouses, who had no right to employment under US immigration rules, were faced with a hard choice. The desire to keep the family together in their chosen country of residence came with the compulsion of wasting their talent for productive and gainful employment as non-resident Indians.

Obama last night instructed the Department of Homeland Security to “give certain H-1B spouses employment authorisation,” that is, the right to work in the US. To be eligible, a spouse should have submitted an application for legal permanent residence in America and is awaiting a decision or is already going through the process of becoming a green card holder.

The process of becoming a permanent resident can take many years. That meant long, frustrating years for a spouse who had to stay at home and waste his or her professional qualities and experience. There have been many cases of depression setting in and even nervous breakdowns among spouses from such a predicament which Obama partly addressed last night.

The President’s executive remedy — the equivalent in India of an ordinance in lieu of enacting a law by Parliament — still leaves in limbo a large number of H1-B spouses who are not on the path to acquiring a green card. They will not be allowed to work but last night’s effort tackles the human dimension of a problem half way.

Many green card holders graduate from permanent residence to US citizenship over time. Obama would have long left the White House by the time the beneficiaries of last night’s order become US citizens, but it is reasonable to assume that his successors from the Democratic party will cash in from his action.

Hillary Clinton, for example, already has a reputation of being H1-B friendly and has been linked to Indian outsourcing firms in New York from where she was earlier elected as a US Senator. The Indian H1-B vote bank could flock to her if she is a presidential contender and could make a difference in states that sit on the fence of the presidential electoral college.

White House documents sent to the media today explaining the President’s action also make it clear that he has taken steps to alleviate other difficulties faced by the large number of Indians who are employees of information technology companies in the US and in other areas such as teaching and nursing under H1-B visas.

“Under the current system, employees with approved legal permanent residence applications often wait many years for their visa to become available. Department of Homeland Security will make regulatory changes to allow these workers to move or change jobs more easily.”

Ever since he became President, Obama has bemoaned the falling education rating among Americans and pointed out that students from India and China are getting the better of his own people when they enrol in US universities.

He asked fellow Americans in his address to the nation last night: “Are we a nation that educates the world’s best and brightest in our universities, only to send them home to create businesses in countries that compete against us? Or are we a nation that encourages them to stay and create jobs here, create businesses here, create industries right here in America?”

A White House “fact sheet” today on the presidential order said steps were being taken to strengthen educational experiences of foreign students studying at US universities, especially those enrolled in courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics collectively referred to as STEM. A huge majority of over 100,000 Indian students who are in the US have chosen STEM courses.

Since the 2008 financial meltdown which killed jobs across America, fresh graduates among foreign students have found it difficult to quickly find employment during the limited time they are allowed to stay in the US after graduation. Obama’s executive order will extend this time frame so that fresh graduates can find jobs that will tempt them to make America their home instead of returning to where they came from only to study.

The administration made it clear that it was simultaneously working on improving the use of temporary L-1 visas for foreign workers who arrive in the US on transfer from a company’s foreign office to its US office.

All the major Indian information technology companies bring a large number of Indian workers to the US every year in this manner. “Department of Labour will take regulatory action to modernise the labour market test that is required of employers that sponsor foreign workers for immigrant visas while ensuring that American workers are protected.”

While Obama’s actions are intended to improve the lot of workers, they have understandably left employers, especially big corporations, unhappy that there is no increase in H1-B visas which allow them to bring overseas labour at cheaper salaries than for US workers. Clearly Obama’s priority effort is to deal with existing problems before piling on new ones, especially the status of illegal immigrants, estimated at between 12 to 14 million.

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