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USCIS_Sig_Rib_VertOn the heels of a new U.S. Department of Homeland Security move this week to allow work permits for some spouses of H-1B visa holders, a prominent Seattle immigration lawyer says startups, especially, will benefit.

On Tuesday, DHS followed up on a November promise by President Barack Obama to extend employment authorization for visa holders. Starting May 26, spouses — who currently can’t seek a job with their own (H-4) visas — will be able to apply for work permits while the H-1B holders’ applications for “green cards” are being processed.

Such H-1B visas for skilled workers are frequently used by companies such as Microsoft and Amazon to hire staff from India, China and other countries. They also are controversial, having prompted criticism that U.S. high-tech workers are being displaced by imported talent.

Tahmina Watson
Tahmina Watson

Tahmina Watson, immigration attorney and founder of Watson Immigration Law, sees this new move as “especially beneficial” for startups, and even more so for those on a budget.

“Hiring an H-4 visa holder will eliminate the need to face the uncertainty of the H-1B lottery,” Watson says, as there are no guarantees of selection in the random process. “Secondly, by hiring an H-4 worker who will have the freedom to work anywhere, the startup employer will not have to incur high costs associated with H-1B visa — often in excess of $5000 which includes both government filing fees as well as lawyer’s fees.” Overall, “It will certainly help the tech industry that is struggling to fill positions.”

But will those spouses have the skills required? Watson thinks so, based on her experience.

“Generally a high-skilled worker will have a high-skilled spouse,” she says. “While I expect a large portion of the estimated 100,000 people that will be immediately eligible to apply for work authorization to be tech workers, I also envision other industries to benefit too, such as life sciences and education.”

It’s important to note that the new DHS authorization doesn’t apply to the spouses of all H-1B visa holders. The regulations only cover those with H-1B partners who are seeking permanent legal residency, and for whom the government has already approved an employer’s petition to start the process.

But that, alone, could be enough to prime the startup pump. And not just for spouses as startup employees.

“The provisions will potentially help create more startup founders and entrepreneurs,” Watson says, since the spouses aren’t limited to a specific employer. “As such, we will likely see many more job creators soon.”

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