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Taking Action to Unlock the Economic Contributions of Americans-in-Waiting

President Obama is changing a rule to allow employment authorization for the spouses of certain high-skill workers who are here on H-1B visas, as long as those workers have begun the process of applying for a green card.

The President is continuing to take action, within his legal authority, to fix our broken immigration system.  Today, the Administration announced a final rule that will allow spouses of certain high-skilled workers to contribute to the economy while they wait to obtain lawful permanent residence status (or a “green card”) through their employer. America needs a 21st century immigration system that lives up to our heritage as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants—and that grows our economy. This change, as well as the other actions announced by the President this past November, will do just that.

The President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) has also released an updated report on the economic impact of the President’s executive actions, which are now estimated to boost the nation’s GDP by as much as $250 billion over ten years, due in part to increases in the size of the American workforce and to increased innovation from high-skill workers. These actions will also increase the productivity and wages of all American workers, not just immigrants, as evidenced by a large body of academic work cited in the CEA report.

By finalizing this rule, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is taking an important step forward in executing the President’s immigration executive actions and locking in these economic benefits. The changes included in this rule will—for the first time—allow employment authorization for the spouses of certain high-skill workers who are here on H-1B visas, as long as those workers have begun the process of applying for a green card. This rule change, which was recommended in a “We the People” petition to the White House, will empower these spouses to put their own education and skills to work for the country that they and their families now call home.

DHS estimates that in the first year, there may be nearly 180,000 spouses eligible to apply for employment authorization under this rule, with as many as 55,000 eligible annually in following years. These women and men are Americans-in-waiting, whose families are often stuck for years in lengthy green card backlogs as a result of our broken immigration system. Allowing them to put their skills to use will reduce the strain on their families during that waiting time, and will yield significant benefits for our economy as well.

It’s no secret that immigrants make outsized contributions to American entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth. Immigrants have started up one of every four small businesses and high-tech companies across the country, and represent 26 percent of all U.S.-based Nobel laureates over the past 50 years. That’s why in the months ahead, the President’s executive actions will do even more to improve the immigration system for high-skilled workers, graduates, and entrepreneurs, such as:

  • Unlocking the talents of more highly-skilled Americans-in-waiting by providing a portable employment authorization for those workers stuck in the green card backlog, allowing them to accept promotions, change positions or employers, or start new companies.
  • Expanding immigration options for foreign entrepreneurs who meet certain criteria for creating jobs, attracting investment, and generating revenue in the U.S., to ensure that our system encourages the world’s most promising and talented entrepreneurs to innovate and hire here in America.
  • Strengthening and extending on-the-job training for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates from U.S. universities, so we welcome the best and brightest rather than sending them home to compete against us.

Of course, only Congress can finish the job of fixing our broken immigration system. President Obama will continue to work with Congress to pass a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that will capture the full economic benefits of immigration reform.

Shaun Donovan is Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Jeffrey Zients is Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy.

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