An effort to restrict immigrant visas for the spouses of foreign workers has suffered a setback in the courts.
The Trump administration has told a federal appeals court in Washington that any changes in a program that grants work permits to the spouses of highly-skilled foreign workers who hold H-1B visas is better handled through the regulatory process than through a court order.
Those fighting for the spouses’ right to work immediately claimed victory.
“It’s a significant victory for little guys like us who are fighting for the basic right to work,” said Aman Kapoor, the co-founder of the Immigration Voice advocacy group, which intervened on behalf of the tech workers.
The case is a look at the complex issue of what to do about the nation’s H-1B visa program, the controversial immigration status that allows U.S. companies to hire as many as 85,000 highly skilled foreign workers annually for jobs the companies say they cannot find Americans to do.
Until 2015, the spouses of those workers, who are provided what’s known as H4 visas, were not allowed to work in the United States. But then the Obama administration changed that restriction, giving an estimated 180,000 spouses the right to hold jobs.
A group of U.S.-born tech workers called Save Jobs USA challenged the Obama decision, arguing that U.S. workers already had lost jobs to H-1B visa holders. A federal district court in Washington ruled in the Obama administration’s favor, and Save Jobs USA filed an appeal.
When the Trump administration came into office, it notified the appeals court that it needed 60 days “to allow incoming leadership personnel adequate time to consider the issues.” That alarmed immigrant groups, which feared the administration would reach an agreement with Saves Jobs USA to revoke the work permits. One immigrant rights group, Immigration Voice, asked to intervene in the court case, saying the Trump administration would not adequately represent its interests.
But on Tuesday, two days after the 60 days expired, the Department of Homeland Security told the appeals court that it had concluded that any changes to the H4 jobs decision should be made through standard notification and comment procedures for federal regulations. It asked the court to take no action for 180 days while the administration explored the idea.
Carl Goldfarb, an attorney for Immigration Voice, who worked with co-counsel Americans for Immigrant Justice on the case, called the move a “significant concession.”
“Should the court of appeals grant DHS’ request, the rule will remain in force in the meantime and eligible spouses should be able to apply for work authorization.”
The appeals court filing was the second time this week that the Trump administration missed an opportunity to curtail foreign worker visas – an issue the president campaigned on.
While the Trump administration promised Monday to beef up enforcement of the H-1B visa program, it opened applications for this year’s batch of H-1B visas with quotas for the program essentially unchanged.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday, however, that change is likely to come to the H-1B program. “The Trump administration will be enforcing laws protecting American workers from discriminating hiring practices,” he said.
Tech giants such as Facebook and other corporate entities like Bank of America and Caterpillar have long argued that the 85,000 annual cap is too low and that they need to bring in more foreign tech workers because they can’t find enough highly-skilled American workers.
“Highly-skilled immigrants create new American jobs, raise wages for native-born workers, and contribute enormously to growing our economy,” said Todd Schulte, president of Fwd.us. an advocacy group focused on immigration reform founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as a U.S. senator from Alabama, criticized the Obama administration’s decision on H-4 visa holders and has long called H-1B program a “tremendous threat” to American workers.