U.S. Immigration Battles Won’t Stop H4 Work Permits

  • Trials to defund Department of Homeland Security
  • Federal Judge rules to stop the deferrals of illegal immigrants
  • H4 work permits unaffected – going to start from May 26
  • Good news for Indians in America

Venkata Kondubhatla

WASHINGTON: Immigration has been an inexorable issue for the United States and an area of relentless fight between the Republicans and the Democrats. This time, the issue took both the parties to the brink of stopping the funding to the Department of Homeland Security and partially shutting down the government.

After all the commotion and drama the Congress finally passed a bill to temporarily fund the department late last Friday and president signed the bill to put into effect. The bill will fund the department for one week, a time for Congress to settle the issues and pass a bill to fund the department for an entire year, which is a usual period for funding.

What caused the imbroglio in the Congress are the amendments to the regular bill passed every year to fund the Homeland Security. These amendments are made to defund the executive order announced by Obama in November 2014that defers the deportations of about five million illegal immigrants. The bill has passed the House, but it failed in the Senate. Naturally, some Democrats opposed the bill. Not only Democrats, many Republicans also opposed the merging of the amendments with the funding bill. They argue that the amendments have to be passed separately  and not to take the leverage of the funding bill to stop the executive order.

The Department of Homeland Security is formed after the Sept 11 attacks, and it combined around 23 federal departments into a unified agency that included Immigration and Naturalization Service and Law Enforcement Agencies.   Defunding the department would risk the security of the country, which the Congress and majority of the people do not want to happen, even though some of them do not like the Obama’s immigration order.

The argument the Republicans who oppose the order make is that Obama’s immigration will cost the states a huge amount of burden that the states cannot afford. They contend that the social security cards, driver licenses and other necessities like emergency care will cost a lot on the state governments. To that extend, some 26 states, most of them ruled by Republicans, have sued the order and a federal judge from Texas has passed an injunction to temporarily stop the initiatives of the executive order that deal with the deferred illegal immigrants, which is supposed to take into effect in May. That means, the illegal immigrants who qualify under the order are again have to live in shadows until the hold has been lifted and the order is funded.  For them the dreaded thoughts of being deported if caught still haunt.

But, if the order is successfully enforced in May many of the qualified illegal immigrants can start living ordinary lives – withholding taxes and enjoying social security benefits. They can find better jobs and contribute to the economy. However, their entanglement continues until the funding issue is resolved.

Another argument the opposition to the order makes is that the executive order is unconstitutional and not legal. It argues that the task has to be decided by the Congress and the president does not have the right to order in the first place. The president’s stand is that since the Congress has not taken any decision on the immigration reform bill, he is forced to use the executive power. Whatever it may be, the final decision has to be taken by the Congress. The president can only temporarily defer the deportations.  The overhaul of immigration is only achieved through the consensus of the two parties in the Congress.

The shutdown of Homeland Security would have been a misstep for GOP as they made clear that the Republican majority Congress will not let any government shutdown. The Majority Senate Leader Mitch Mc Connell has made it clear to that effect many times. He wanted the amendments to be in a separate bill and should not be appended to the funding bill.

Separating the amendments from the funding bill will not be effective for the detractors of the order. Obama already said that he would veto any such bill. He will not be able to veto a bill that deals with the funding of the department, and hence the need to conflate the two becomes important for the detractors.

This week the Congress will have to go through the process of voting the funding bill again and resolve the issues to get it passed and get signed by the president. One has to wait to see what happens.

Does this fight affect the H4 work permits?

One of the initiatives of the executive order is to modernize, improve and clarify immigrant and nonimmigrant visa programs. And sponsoring work permits to H4 dependent visa holders under certain conditions has been a part of the initiative. Some 179,600 at present and 55,000 annually would receive employment authorization if they applied after May 26, when it is supposed to begin. And there are many Indian H4 visa holders who would be receiving the work permits. The permit would be a great opportunity for all those spouses who wanted to work and become independent but could not.

Apart from employment authorization, increasing the time for Optional Practical Training (OPT) for the foreign students also comes under the initiative. Students enjoy the tax-free earnings for longer time, which helps them pay back their education loans.

All this is good news for Indians in America. The entanglement in the Congress or the injunction of the federal judge is not about the employment authorization for H4 dependents, which is only a small piece of the order, but with the initiative of deferrals. But still should be taken with a caveat – for example, the future president may repeal the order or the Congress may repeal complete order, which includes the employment authorization, but the chances are all but zero.

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