H4 Update: More Likely to Work in Mainstream Jobs than in High Tech

Published on May 17th, 2014

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the Obama administration’s proposed new rule to grant work permits to H4 visa holders who are spouses of H-1B non-immigrant workers. The administration maintains that its rule would further “the goals of attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign workers.” An estimated 650,000 H-1B workers are in the U.S.

The H-1B has a two-decade long history of displacing American workers. As the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Ron Hira wrote, “The goals of the H-1B and L visa programs have been to bring in foreign workers who complement the U.S. workforce. Instead, loopholes in both programs have made it too easy to bring in cheaper foreign workers, with ordinary skills, who directly substitute for, rather than complement, workers already in the country. They are clearly displacing and denying opportunities to U.S. workers.”

If H4 spouses get work permits, the very valid concern is that more Americans will be displaced.

University of California, Davis Professor Norm Matloff argues that the spouses may not have the same appeal to high tech employers because they haven’t sponsored the H4s. Accordingly, the H4 would have mobility to move at will within the labor market, an advantage the sponsored employee doesn’t have. Current rules governing H-1Bs create a form of indentured servitude that Silicon Valley loves.

Tellingly, an immigration lawyer told Professor Matloff: “The most important advantage of this process [sponsoring an H-1B employee] is the fact that the employee is tied to a particular position with one company and must remain with the company in most cases for more than four years…”

Consequently, Professor Matloff concludes in many cases the H-4 visa holder will find it more difficult to get high tech work than did his/her H-1B spouse because the latter is immobile, a huge attraction to many employers. Under the proposed rules change, the H-4s will be free agents who can seek out other opportunities, and thus not be attractive to employers that prefer locked in H-1Bs.

But, even if Silicon Valley doesn’t hire the spouses of its existing employees, an H4 with work authorization will still allow the foreign-born to compete with unemployed Americans in other fields like factory jobs, retail, food services and dozens of other competitive categories with a worker surplus.

Readers can officially comment here on President Obama’s proposal until July 13.

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