H-1B Visas: Will the Trump Administration Ban Work Permits for Spouses?

President Donald Trump signs an executive order to try to bring jobs back to American workers and revamp the H-1B visa guest worker program during a visit to the headquarters of tool manufacturer Snap-On on April 18, 2017 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Scott Olson/Getty

The Trump administration's inclusion of a proposed plan to scrap work permits for spouses of H-1B visa holders in its 2019 Spring regulatory agenda appears to have sparked fears that the permit ban may be one step closer to coming into effect.

On Monday, Indian daily newspaper The Economic Times reported that the Trump administration had "begun the process to ban work permits for spouses of H-1B holders," a move that, it noted, "would affect the families of thousands of Indian hi-tech workers in the U.S."

The report appeared to follow the Trump administration's inclusion of its proposal to rescind the H-4 employment authorization document (EAD) rule, which allows spouses of highly-skilled foreign workers who come to the U.S. under its H-1B visa program, in its Spring 2019 Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions, which was published last Wednesday.

However, while the Trump administration is seeking to rescind the H-4 EAD rule, which was brought into effect in 2015 under the Obama administration, there are currently no formal plans to bring the plan into effect in the near future.

In fact, the proposal to end the program for spouses of H-1B beneficiaries has been under review at the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since February. It is still unclear when, if ever, the plan will be brought into effect.

What the appearance of the Trump administration's proposal on the regulatory agenda does mean is that the plan is still considered a federal priority.

If the policy change does take place, it could affect thousands of workers, with the majority of approved applicants coming from India.

According to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS), in 2018, as many as 6,800 people were on the list of "initial approved" applicants for the H-4 program, including 6,270 female applicants and 530 male applicants. The majority of applicants were from India at 6,130, with 501 applicants coming from China and 31 coming from the Philippines.

In total, since the Obama administration introduced the policy change in 2015 to 2018, there have been as many as 90,946 "initial approved" applications, according to USCIS data.

The H4 EAD rule, which came into effect on May 26, 2015, was initially implemented by the Obama government with the intention of retaining highly skilled foreign workers and deterring them from choosing not to stay in the U.S.

Under President Donald Trump, the government has taken a different tack, however, with the U.S. leader arguing that both the H-1B visa program and H4 EAD rule take job opportunities away from American citizens.

The president's "Buy American, Hire American" executive order has sought to reform programs like the H-1B visa scheme, in a bid that his administration claims seeks to "protect the economic interests of U.S. workers and prevent fraud and abuse within the immigration system."

In a statement to Newsweek, USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins said: "USCIS is committed to upholding our nation's immigration laws, helping ensure they are faithfully carried out, and safeguarding the integrity of our immigration system designed to protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers.

"As such, the administration has been relentlessly pursuing merit-based policy and regulatory immigration reforms, including a thorough review of employment based visa programs so they benefit the American people to the greatest extent possible in fulfillment of the President's Buy American, Hire American Executive Order. USCIS will continue adjudicating all petitions, applications and requests fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under applicable law, policies, and regulations," she said.