USCIS announced on February 24th that they’re going to extend the eligibility for employment authorization to certain H-4 visa dependent spouses. An H-4 dependent spouse is the husband or wife of someone who holds an H1-B employment visa.
The H4 Visa
The H-4 visa has traditionally been considered useless except that it allowed spouses to be physically present in the U.S. This is because it does not allow the spouse to work and therefore has been nicknamed the “Shopping Visa.”
Essentially, if you get an H1-B visa, you have up to 6 years to work for your employer, or other employers if you change sponsors, but unless your spouse changes from the H-4 to another visa that allows them to work, they literally have their hands tied as far as being able to find gainful employment. This has been problematic because it discourages married couples from coming to the U.S. under the H-1B category.
A Change in Policy
USCIS recently announced that in specific instances they were going to start allowing spouses holding H-4 visas to apply for employment authorization. It is a very technical situation, but applies when their spouses have been approved for an I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, and have extended their visas past the usual limit of 6 years.
There are very limited situations where this actually applies. It is helpful for foreign nationals who are from countries with long backlogs on immigrant visa processing, most notably India and China, where many H-1B visa holders originate from. What this means is that for six years as an H-4 visa holder there is nothing that can be done to work, unless the H-4 visa holder independently qualifies for an employment visa.
Filing Petitions for Work Authorization
On May 26th, USCIS is expected to begin accepting petitions for work authorization. According to the estimates on the website, there are potentially as many 180,000 people who will apply.
In a lot of cases however, the H1-B visa holders are not sponsored by their employers, or don’t have anyone that’s sponsoring them for a green card. In these cases, the Form I-766 will not apply.
If you are the spouse of an H1-B visa holder and have questions regarding your eligibility to get a work authorization, or if you do not want to wait six years with the “shopping visa,” and are interested in studying, training or working, there are plenty of alternative visa options for you. In that case, it is recommended that you speak with an experienced immigration attorney to guide you through your options.