H-4 EAD is Smart Policy
that Should Be Preserved

Don't put skilled immigrants back on the sidelines. Allowing H-4 holders to work is smart policy that allows immigrants to fully contribute
/By  Andrew Moriarty, Deputy Director of Federal Policy

Background on H-4 EAD

In 2015 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented a policy permitting certain H-4 visa holders—spouses of H-1B skilled workers—to apply for an employment authorization document (EAD). The goal of the policy was to help “U.S. businesses keep their highly skilled workers … [and provide] more economic stability and better quality of life for the affected families.”

While H-4 visa holders normally receive authorization to work once they have passed certain stages in the process to adjust status to permanent resident (to obtain a “green card”), they are barred from working while still in temporary nonimmigrant status. Furthermore, outdated restrictions on how many people can apply for green cards each year can significantly increase the wait time to over 10 years for individuals from populous countries like China and India. This results in highly-educated and highly-skilled H-4 visa holders residing in the U.S. for years before being permitted to work. Since the rule was implemented in 2015, it has been a lifeline for nearly 100,000 women and men who had felt trapped and hopeless because of the work restrictions.

Despite the Biden Administration’s decision to preserve H-4 EAD, the policy has faced legal challenges from immigration restrictionist groups, as well as debilitating processing delays, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, that have forced H-4 EAD holders to lose their jobs and put their families’ futures at risk.

The H-4 EAD rule is a smart immigration policy that should be preserved because it allows talented foreign-born individuals to contribute to the economy while living in the United States, it strengthens our skilled immigration system so that we can continue to recruit and retain high quality talent, and it promotes self-sufficiency and integration, ensuring aspiring American families and their U.S. citizen children are able to be successful in the U.S.

Unlocking potential of Americans-in-waiting

These H-4 visa holders have a wealth of talent and experience to contribute to the workforce, and are already living here and on track to permanent residency. Why should we force them to wait decades to contribute their their skills?

A recent survey found that 88.6% of H-4 EAD holders are prime working age (between 20-39 years old) and over 50% have a Master’s degree. They also found that nearly half of H-4s currently working are in skilled computer and mathematics roles, while others are working in crucial, underserved jobs as doctors, teachers, and entrepreneurs creating jobs for Americans.

They are also distributed across the country, with over half of H-4 EAD recipients living in states that are losing their prime working age population. Keeping these talented individuals stuck on the sidelines when U.S. employers need their skillsets doesn’t help anyone.

Keeping the U.S. globally competitive

The policy also strengthens America’s hand in the global fight for talent. The reality is that the U.S. is finding it increasingly harder to recruit and retain skilled immigrants from around the world, largely because of extraordinary backlogs. Immigrants waiting decades for green cards are considering leaving for countries with more efficient pathways, and nearly 90% of H-4 holders say the work authorization is “very important” to their decision to stay in the U.S.

Providing work authorization to these spouses keeps the U.S. in line with countries like Canada and Australia, who have similar policies, and ameliorates some of the more deeply ingrained problems with the high-skilled immigration system.

Investing in America's Future

Most importantly, the H-4 rule ensures these future American families have the best chance at success. Simply put, self-sufficiency is impossible if people can’t work, but with the EAD, H-4 holders thrive. Immigration lawyer Emily Neumann points out that “the earning power of the majority of individual H-4 EAD holders exceeds the typical household income in the United States.” This means they can earn what’s needed to pay the bills, and spend additional income in their local community, or to make long-term investments in education or buying a home. This ensures the next generation has a strong foundation for success, which is particularly important for the majority of H-4 holders who have at least one U.S.-born child.

These citizen children should have bright futures in the U.S. – when given the opportunity to succeed, second-generation immigrants typically have similar or higher incomes and education, and lower rates of poverty, than their parents and even the rest of the general public, allowing them to contribute even more. Handicapping tens of thousands of American children by limiting their parents’ ability to provide for them would foolishly and unfairly hinder that potential.

Significant economic and human costs if ended

If H-4 EAD holders are forced out of the workforce, the economic and human costs will be significant. This would undo the irreversible life decisions and long-term investments these families have made based on the promise of the rule. 93% of current EAD holders are women — that is nearly 90,000 women who would be forced out of their jobs and stripped of their ability to support their families, including their U.S. citizen children.

As one EAD holder put it, “Even if you have a supportive spouse, it’s about the basic decision-making power, a sense of freedom. I would say it took me a good year to really embrace the fact that I cannot work and after that, I just wanted to understand what else I can utilize my life for.”

Research from labor economists has shown that pushing current H-4 EAD holders out of the workforce would shrink annual GDP by $7.5 billion and cut federal, state and local tax revenue by $2 billion, not to mention the estimated 4% of EAD holders who own their own small business, employing Americans, whose closure would have downstream impacts for the vendors they work with, customers they serve, investors they’ve partnered with, and so on. In fact, that research shows the number of American workers employed by H-4 entrepreneurs who would be forced to close their businesses would negate any employment gains.

Preserving the benefits of the H-4 EAD rule

In the short term, the Biden Administration should continue to act to bolster the H-4 EAD program and address the delays that have plagued the program (the Administration’s decision to suspend onerous biometric requirements is a strong first step).

Ultimately, Congress will need to provide a solution. Congress started down the right path in 2001, when it passed a law permitting work authorization to spouses of L-1 visa holders (a nonimmigrant work visa similar to that of the H-1B). The bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013 would have followed suit, granting all H-4 recipients work authorization, and taking steps to draw down the green card backlogs that necessitated the rule in the first place. Congress should take up the issue of work authorization for spouses as part of broader high-skilled immigration reform that expands and improves the immigration system.

A bipartisan bill extending work authorization for all H-4 spouses was introduced in the 117th Congress, and would make a perfect starting point.

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