Business

Spouses hold out hope for new work visa rules

Obama’s action could aid those languishing

 Simona Stella has extensive experience in international development but cannot work in the United States.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Simona Stella has extensive experience in international development but cannot work in the United States.

WASHINGTON — Geetha Thangasamy battles the loneliness with television. She scours the Internet to keep her skills as a software engineer fresh. And now, after 6½ years, her patience may pay off.

The Norwood woman is among thousands of foreign-born residents who cannot work in the United States because their partners were brought here on a special visa for highly skilled workers. Family members receive different visas that do not allow them to hold jobs.

Many spouses spend up to a decade in English classes and place their own careers on hold as the family inches through a backlogged process to become permanent residents.

Advertisement

All that appears ready to change. President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration supported a pending rule that allows some of these spouses a chance to work.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“I have ambition,” said Thangasamy, a 37-year-old who comes from southern India and whose husband also is an engineer. “Everything is changing now.”

But the proposal has prompted a fight between immigration advocates, who see it as a humane act, and labor groups, which view it as a further attack on American jobs.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates the work authorization will initially affect more than 100,000 spouses and up to almost 36,000 annually.

New England has some of the highest demand for high-skilled worker visas relative to employment, thanks to its large technology and science industries, and could feel a significant impact from the spousal issue. In Massachusetts last year the US Citizenship and Immigration Services approved nearly 11,000 so-called H-1B visas.

Advertisement

A year ago, Simona Stella left Italy and a two-decade career in international development to join her husband, a research scientist in Boston. They had tried a long-distance marriage for three years as she attempted to get her own H-1B visa.

“Can you imagine at 45 to start from scratch?” said Stella, who lives in Brookline. “When you used to travel a lot for work, had a lot of responsibility, worked in a very good environment, and now you’re suddenly home alone and economically dependent?”

She babysits and assists at charities across Boston.

“I know I have something to offer,” she said.

The proposed rule affects those whose employed spouses have started the process to receive a green card, which grants permanent residence. Although some spouses under other types of visas may work, those married to H-1B visa holders are prohibited from seeking employment and are not eligible for government services.

Advertisement

This has tethered a largely female group to their spouses, advocates say, robbing them of the ability to earn income and assert their independence.

“The system is perpetuating hierarchies in the household we have been trying to reverse for so long,” said Sabrina Balgamwalla, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Dakota who has studied dependent spouses, known as H-4 visa holders, and wants the changes to extend further.

These spouses can go to school and volunteer, but advocates have lobbied for years for them to be allowed to work. Homeland Security first recommended the change as part of a 2012 package, although officials did not release the proposed rule until this May.

The agency received more than 12,000 comments on the proposed rule, ranging from lavish praise to tirades against the loopholes of immigration policy. It is expected to publish a final rule in the coming months.

Homeland Security said the rule would “help retain talented professionals who are valued by US employers and who seek to contribute to our economy.”

Labor groups have fought the move, seeing it more as a free ride than an economic boost.

“It doesn’t force the tech industry to pay more or give an opportunity to recent graduates,” said Paul Almeida, president of the department for professional employees at the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor organization. “It’s just, ‘Here’s a ticket, you have work authorization and you can work anywhere.’ ”

Critics of the proposed rule said spouses should try to get their own H-1B visas and warn of starting a dangerous precedent if two-for-one visas become the norm.

“There’s a lot of ‘visa creep’ going on without any cleaning up of the programs that are clearly being exploited and working against American workers,” said Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at Howard University who focuses on the outsourcing of high-skilled jobs.

Tech companies sometimes help pay for a spouse’s dependent visa, although they rarely offer an extra stipend. And although businesses acknowledge that a spouse’s happiness is useful in retaining workers, they wanted more from the president’s executive action, in particular an increase in the number of foreign skilled workers.

“It’s good for those in relationships,” said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council. But overall, Obama’s action “dramatically misses the mark,” he said.

The Massachusetts Congressional delegation has pushed for increases in the H-1B cap and aspects that might assist the state’s many tech workers.

Even those who qualify remain skeptical that the changes will happen soon.

“This originally came up two years ago and we thought it was something that was going to happen,” said Uday Narayanan, whose wife is unable to work. “It is back, but should we expect something and be disappointed later?”

His wife, Aparna Nohan, a soft-spoken 28-year-old from India, has a masters degree in human resource management. The extra income would contribute to the family, she said from her home in Woburn, but less tangible reasons also compel her.

“Your job is what defines you,” she said. “Not having that is not easy.”

Jessica Meyers can be reached at jessica.meyers@globe.com.