May 8, 2014, 5:30 pm
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The Department of Homeland Security announced proposed rule changes this week to allow the spouses of some highly skilled temporary workers to hold jobs in the United States, and to remove some of the obstacles that make it difficult for some groups of highly skilled workers to remain here.
That’s very good news for some of the tens of thousands of temporary immigrants, particularly those from China, India and the Philippines, who come to work in science, engineering and related fields under the H1B visa program. In many cases these workers’ spouses have similar educations and skills, but under current law they are forbidden to hold jobs themselves. That makes living in the United States harder on these families, and allows the spouses’ technical skills and career prospects to languish.
The proposal for work permission is limited, however, representing just a modest adjustment in the direction of common sense. It’s only for spouses of H1B workers who have already begun the (often obscenely long) process of seeking permanent residency, or green cards.
Meanwhile, of course, the global race for highly skilled workers continues. Countries with far more generous visa policies, such as Canada and Australia, continue with the proverbial eating of America’s lunch.
This raises the question of why the United States isn’t doing more. An immigration lawyer and blogger, Angelo Paparelli, told The Times that the rules changes were “a rather miserly grant,” given that America’s competitors were “clamoring to get the best and the brightest.” Why not let every spouse of an H1B worker, not just those on the green-card track, have work authorization?
That bolder idea is actually a component of the ambitious immigration bill — but it’s comatose in Congress right now because of staunch Republican opposition. President Obama’s modest changes to the H1B program are an attempt to use his executive powers to repair the inefficient immigration system around the edges. Republicans, naturally, condemned it this week.
The country has to do a lot more to attract immigrants at all skill levels, to reunite families, to be a place where entrepreneurs and innovators the world over want to come, contribute and put down roots. President Obama gets it. Republicans talk about competitiveness, too, but too often they stand in the way.