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Tech industry urges U.S. to keep work permits for H-1B spouses

(Bloomberg) -- Business and tech industry groups -- representing Amazon.com Inc., Google, Visa Inc. and other companies -- are urging the Trump administration not to halt work authorizations for spouses of immigrants who have specialty worker H-1B visas and are seeking permanent residency.

The request, in a letter late Wednesday, comes as the Department of Homeland Security plans to issue a proposal to remove the work eligibility of these spouses of H-1B holders, according to its Fall 2017 agenda. The industry groups said they expect the move next month. It would be one of the agency’s early steps to regulate high-skilled immigration as Congress debates other immigration issues, such as the status of refugees and undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Technology companies have relied on H-1B visas to hire foreign talent, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Critics say some companies have abused the program to displace American workers.

A 2015 rule issued by the Obama administration allows work permits for spouses who otherwise couldn’t be employed while H-1B visa holders seek permanent resident status -- a process that can take a decade or longer. More than 104,000 spouses have been granted work authorization since the H-4 visa rule was enacted, according to DHS’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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Attendees working on Apple Inc. laptop computers participate in the Yahoo! Inc. Mobile Developer Conference Hackathon in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. The Hackathon is an opportunity for mobile developers to come together and hack around the Yahoo! Inc. Mobile Developer Suite. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Industry groups including the Information Technology Industry Council, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and BSA-The Software Alliance wrote to Citizenship and Immigration Services to urge the government to keep the H-4 program.

“It is a function of the failure to reform our nation’s immigration system that this group of H-4 spouses -- the majority of whom are women -- continue to face uncertainty and may be prevented from working while they wait here for bureaucratic backlogs to be cleared,” the letter said.

Dean Garfield, chief executive officer of the Information Technology industry Council, said in a phone interview Wednesday, “To the extent that a spouse isn’t able to work, it makes coming to the United States less attractive.”

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah questioned Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on the proposal.

“The 2015 rule seemed to me to be a pretty sensible policy,” Hatch said. “Can you explain why DHS is planning to rescind this policy?”

Nielsen replied that she would look into the matter, while adding, “Unfortunately, over the years, in general, we have gotten away from the intent of Congress with respect to some of the visa categories.”

Hatch said on the Senate floor Wednesday that he plans to reintroduce legislation next week to revise the high-skilled immigration program to "help end our stupid practice of educating people here in the United States and then sending them back home to compete against us."

Other proposals listed on the DHS agenda include changing the H-1B petitioning process to revise the definition of "specialty occupation" to admit the “best and brightest foreign nationals” and reduce fraud and abuse of training options.