SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — When Neha Mahajan's husband got a job transfer from New Delhi to New Jersey, she was excited to come along. But the thrill faded when the television reporter realized there was no way she could get a job in the United States because immigration rules barred her from working.
Over six years, she became deeply frustrated.
That changed Tuesday when the Obama administration announced a visa rule revision that will let spouses of some highly skilled immigrants apply to work in the United States starting this year.
"This rule has come as a big, big relief to me," Mahajan said during a press call organized by immigration reform activists. "I can finally dream of being myself."
Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the change will encourage more highly skilled workers to come to the United States on H-1B visas and apply for green cards to stay here. He said attracting those workers — and their spouses — will give a boost to America's economy.
"They are, in many cases, in their own right highly skilled workers," Rodriguez told reporters, adding that many families struggled financially when a spouse couldn't work, and in some cases returned to their country.
Employers can hire foreign workers under H-1B visas after proving there are no qualified candidates available in the U.S. Each year about 85,000 are issued, mostly in tech firms.
Until now, their spouses have been issued a different H-4 visa that made them ineligible to get a Social Security number. They simply couldn't legally earn any money.
"This is a long-awaited change that will do nothing but good for all," said Austin, Texas, immigration attorney Daniel Kowalski. "H-4 spouses will benefit, putting their skills to productive use, and easing the stress on families previously burdened by having one talented spouse sidelined. There is no downside."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., disagrees. In a news release, he said the spouses of foreign workers will take jobs away from Americans.
"The administration says this is to reduce the 'personal stresses' on guest workers. What about the stresses on American workers, and their families and spouses, and their children?" Sessions said.
The Obama administration announced plans to make the change last May. The government estimates as many as 179,000 spouses could apply for work permits in the first year, and another 55,000 each year after. Applications will be accepted starting May 26.
The announcement comes as the Obama administration battles with Republicans over plans for more expansive immigration measures that could allow 4 million immigrants in the country illegally to seek work permits and protection from deportation.
A federal judge temporarily blocked the measures, and the Obama administration has since appealed.
Taxin reported from Tustin, California.