Biden administration settles with spouses of immigrant visa holders, clearing them for work

The Biden administration reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday that will make it easier for immigrant spouses without a visa to continue working in the U.S. without having to re-up their employment authorization.

The settlement, reached in a lawsuit brought by the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) on behalf of immigrant spouses in August, will help thousands of immigrants in relationships with H-1B and L-1 visa holders who were facing long delays to receive their employment authorization because of a backlog in the system.

Specifically, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will give L-2 spouses automatic work authorization, meaning they will no longer have to apply for a separate work permit before arriving in the U.S. 

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The settlement also reverses a USCIS policy barring H-4 spouses from taking advantage of the automatic extension of their work permits while their separate employment applications were still pending.

Those new regulations will remove thousands of work permit applications from the backlog while saving immigrants money, as each work permit application costs $495 for submission, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Additionally, under the settlement, the government will automatically stretch work authorizations for some spouses of H-1B visa holders for up to six months if their visa has not yet expired, according to the Journal.

The old policy, which required applications to renew work permits, caused tens of thousands of immigrants to lose their ability to work, the Journal noted, and in some circumstances, their jobs were no longer available when they were able to work again.

The COVID-19 pandemic partially contributed to the backlog in the system, as immigration offices shuttered operations, resulting in the cancellation of most visa appointments, the Journal reported.

A policy change implemented during the Trump administration, however, exacerbated circumstances. It required that immigrant spouses submit new fingerprint samples with their renewal applications, which added another step to the process, according to the Journal.

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In May, the government nixed the fingerprint requirement, though that move reportedly did not help lessen the processing backlog.

Jesse Bless, the director of federal litigation at AILA, said in a statement that the settlement marks "a historic change for L-2 spouses who will now enjoy work authorization incident to status, meaning these spouses of executive and managers will no longer have to apply for employment authorization prior to working in the United States."

Jon Wasden, one of AILA’s litigation partners, said that while he applauds the settlement and new policy, “it is frankly frustrating that an easily fixable issue took this long to address.”

“People were suffering. They were losing their high-paying jobs for absolutely no legitimate reason causing harm to them and U.S. businesses,” he added in a statement.

When reached on Wednesday, a spokesperson for USCIS told The Hill that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.