A couple of days ago, the Seattle Times put out a pretty convincing story for the need to reform our astonishingly bureaucratic immigration system. The story covered in-depth the many challenges facing H-4 visa holders, as spouses and family members of other H visa holders (most typically, the infamous H-1B). Under the current system, H-4 holders aren’t eligible to get a Social Security Number (SSN) or legal work authorization, but can get a driver’s license and ironically, an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). That’s right, they can pay payroll and income taxes for those jobs they aren’t legally allowed to have.
As the Times story details, the H-4 restrictions put a mighty big pinch on visa holders, who might be just as skilled as H-1B workers but aren’t able to compete in the local labor pool. Switching to an H-1B is no picnic, either. Employer sponsorships are often costly*, and even more so for non-STEM employers who don’t have the deep pockets, but still need just as much crack at skilled labor as their STEM counterparts.
This is, simply put, an atrocious waste of talent and skill and a direct impedance on economic growth. I haven’t done too much looking, but I suspect that there’s probably research out there that’s quantified the lost opportunity cost for every qualified foreign worker who is denied legal work authorization in the United States. Given the massive number of H-1B applications yearly, it probably adds up to a significant share of the GDP.
Speculation and faux napkin-analysis aside, there are some pretty big sub-regional implications in all of this (which I’ll detail more in the second post on The H-1B Debate). If denied a work visa, H-4 and other non-work visa holders must wait until they’re granted permanent residency. Yes, that’s right, they or their working spouse must have a green card in hand prior to being given work authorization. For some prospective immigrants, that’s a process that can take decades.
On the whole, it’s a big enough deterrent to force entire families to return to their native countries, leave behind their networks and connections here in America, and be just another transient piece rotating in and out of local communities. And that’s never a good thing for the community, the city, the state, the country– or the people that live in them.
*The H-1B fees include those for I-129 petition filing, ACWIA training, Fraud Prevention & Detection (seriously), which can all add up well beyond $2000, depending on the size and industry of the employer. Luckily, the ACWIA fee can be waived for employers in education, which lightens the load quite a bit.