Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Spouses of high-skilled foreign workers may soon get their own jobs



Shalini Sharma at her home in Irvine, Calif. on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. Sharma worked as an architect in India. But as a dependent on her husband's work permit, she has not been allowed to work since they arrived in the U.S. six years ago. A new policy will allow dependent spouses like her to apply for their own work permits starting in May.
Shalini Sharma at her home in Irvine, Calif. on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. Sharma worked as an architect in India. But as a dependent on her husband's work permit, she has not been allowed to work since they arrived in the U.S. six years ago. A new policy will allow dependent spouses like her to apply for their own work permits starting in May.
Susanica Tam/ KPCC

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A new immigration policy published Wednesday will let the spouses of certain H-1B work visa holders apply for their own work permits beginning May 26.

Among those counting the days are people like Shalini Sharma, in Irvine. She’s been unable to work in the U.S. ever since she and her husband arrived on his work visa six years ago.

In India, she worked as an architect.

“Having the notion that I can work is like super, super, duper exciting. I feel like a superwoman!" Sharma said Wednesday, laughing.

Sharma last spoke with KPCC in January. The rule change had already been in the works when President Obama included it in his executive announcement in November.

It was published in the Federal Register today.

It's estimated that just in the first year, close to 180,000 dependent spouses like Sharma will be able to apply for work permits; as many as 55,000 spouses could apply annually in coming years.

Advocates like Manju Kulkarni of the South Asian Network in Artesia spent years pushing for the work permits. She said the majority of those affected are women, many from South Asia. Many are as highly educated as their husbands.

“Many have technical backgrounds," Kulkarni said. "A number of them are professionals in the sciences. They are physicians, professors, engineers."

The dependent spouses affected are in the United States on what is called an H-4 visa, granted to dependents of work visa holders. But only certain H-4 holders will be eligible to work, namely those whose spouses hold high-skilled worker visas and are in line for legal permanent status, or whose visas have been extended.

From U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:

Eligible individuals include certain H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants who:

  • Are the principal beneficiaries of an approved Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker; or
  • Have been granted H-1B status under sections 106(a) and (b) of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 as amended by the 21st Century Department of Justice Appropriations Authorization Act. The Act permits H-1B nonimmigrants seeking lawful permanent residence to work and remain in the United States beyond the six-year limit on their H-1B status.

Dependent spouses will need to fill out forms and pay a filing fee of almost $400. Kulkarni said her group is planning workshops to help applicants prepare.

As for Sharma, she's already preparing. She’s studying for a real estate license.

She's also learning what it would take for her to go back to architecture, and is looking into what related jobs her degree might let her take in the U.S.

"I'll see which job suits me more," Sharma said. "Then I'll pick one."

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website has details on the new policy.