The Department of Homeland Security announced two new proposed rules Tuesday morning aimed at attracting and holding onto highly skilled immigrants. It’s the latest effort by the Obama administration to change immigration policy while Congress continues to stall on passing comprehensive reform legislation.
The rules, presented on a call with reporters by DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, will remove obstacles to remaining in the U.S. for certain temporary workers and offer employment visas for some of those workers’ spouses.
H-1B visas are temporary employment permits for foreign workers with a theoretical or technical expertise in particular fields such as engineering, science or computer programming among others. Currently, H-1B workers are given a three-year duration of stay that is extendable to six years and, in very specific, special circumstances, up to 10 years. There are, however, a number of obstacles that make it difficult for H-1B workers to remain in the United States after their visa has expired.
The new rules announced Tuesday aim to knock down at least a few of these hurdles, especially for highly skilled professionals like professors and researchers from Chile, Singapore, Australia, and the Northern Mariana Islands who are apparently given priority for such work authorizations and extensions over workers from other countries.
“For the sake of our economy and our security we need common-sense immigration reform that makes immigration legal and efficient,” Mayorkas told reporters. “In the meantime, we will continue to make improvements in the areas where we can make a difference.”
Pritzker pointed to entrepreneurs like Sergey Brin, Google’s Russian-born co-founder, and Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who founded and runs Chobani, just two of the more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies that are founded by immigrants or their children.
“Passing immigration reform is a moral obligation that also makes good economic sense,” Pritzker said.
Currently, DHS does not offer employment authorizations to the dependent spouses of H-1B workers, meaning they cannot legally work in the U.S. while their husbands or wives are temporarily employed at an American company. The new rules will make work visas available to certain individuals whose H-1B spouses have already begun seeking permanent residence through their employer. Mayorkas estimated that approximately 97,000 HB-1 spouses will be eligible to apply for employment authorization under this rule within the first year that it is enacted and then over 30,000 annually after that.
“These individuals are American families in waiting,” Pritzker said of the people who will benefit from the proposed changes. “Many tire of waiting for green cards to become available and leave the country to work for our competition.”
The proposed rules will be published in the Federal Register and the public will be allowed to comment on them at regulations.gov. Public comments and concerns will be taken into consideration before the final rules are implemented. This process typically takes about 60 days but Mayorkas said “it is our intent to review the comments most expeditiously and publish the rule very quickly thereafter in light of its importance to American competitiveness and the growth of our economy.”
Silicon Valley tech companies have been particularly active in pushing for immigration reform. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of Silicon Valley’s science, engineering, and technology workers were born outside the U.S., compared to a quarter of people working in such fields throughout the rest of the country. Last April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of FWD.us, a lobbying group co-founded by Zuckerberg and funded by other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs aims to advocate the passing of bipartisan immigration reform legislation that better allows for American companies to recruit the world’s most talented people.
“As leaders of an industry that has benefited from this economic shift, we believe that we have a responsibility to work together to ensure that all members of our society gain from the rewards of modern knowledge economy,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece introducing FWD.us.
Tuesday is the latest move by the Obama administration to make immigration policy changes in lieu of Congress enacting real reform. Easing restrictions on a relatively small number of very specifically skilled, foreign-born workers might not be exactly what immigration reform advocates, who have been calling on Obama to make deportation policies more humane, were looking for. But given Congressional Republicans’ likelihood to kill comprehensive immigration reform at the first sign of any executive action that might be perceived as weakening border security, the proposed changes announced Tuesday seem carefully, and cleverly, calculated.