The Obama administration moved Tuesday to carry out portions of President Obama’s executive action on immigration even as a federal judge has halted the president’s temporary deportation amnesty.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it is extending eligibility to dependent spouses of H1-B visa holders to obtain work permits as part of Mr. Obama’s immigration action. Starting in 90 days about 179,600 immigrants will be eligible for the benefit in the first year.
“Allowing the spouses of these visa holders to legally work in the United States makes perfect sense,” said USCIS Director Leon Rodriguez. “It helps U.S. businesses keep their highly skilled workers by increasing the chances these workers will choose to stay in this country during the transition from temporary workers to permanent residents.”
But Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said the president was unilaterally implementing “another policy, another program that has not been authorized by law that would add several hundred thousand new workers to our country.”
“There’s been no sense at all by President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security [Secretary] Jeh Johnson, the Democratic members of this Congress, no concern about the employment prospects of lawful immigrants, green card holders and native-born Americans,” Mr. Sessions said. “The first thing we should do is be focusing on getting jobs for Americans that are unemployed. Are we going to keep Americans on welfare and benefits while we bring in more and more foreigners to take jobs when we’ve got Americans ready and willing to take those jobs?”
The move comes as Congress considers an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security that would defund Mr. Obama’s deportation amnesty.
On Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, questioned Homeland’s Mr. Johnson on whether the administration plans to comply with the court’s injunction to stop the deportation amnesty. He noted that Mr. Obama has pledged publicly to “continue in the planning” of the activities that the court ordered him to stop.
“Violating an unambiguous federal court order by defying its instructions to cease and desist a particular activity would represent a significant breach of your authority, and would be an escalation in abuse of our separation of powers,” Mr. Cruz wrote. “For a president and his cabinet to telegraph intent to violate a federal court order requires additional scrutiny from Congress.”
A federal district judge in Texas last week blocked the amnesty program from going forward. The administration is appealing the ruling, and White House aides said Tuesday they are eager to ease the concerns of illegal immigrants who don’t know whether they’ll be allowed to remain in the U.S.
“It’s important to put [the court ruling] in context, because the broader executive actions are moving forward,” said Cecilia Munoz, White House domestic policy director. “The administration continues to implement the portions of the actions that the president and the Department of Homeland Security took, which were not affected by the court’s ruling.”
Mr. Obama will hold a town hall meeting in Miami Wednesday, televised on the Spanish-language network Telemundo, where he’s expected to address concerns about the court ruling.
“The president will continue to fight both for immigration reform as well as for the implementation of these actions, because they’re the right thing to do,” Ms. Munoz said. “You will hear the president express the confidence that we will prevail at the end of the day in court.”
In addition to the work permits for certain spouses, Ms. Munoz said, the administration is moving ahead with proposed changes to legal immigration, changes in enforcement priorities “and many other elements” of Mr. Obama’s executive action that he announced last November.
USCIS is estimating that about 55,000 immigrant spouses will be eligible for the work permits annually after the first year of the program. Mr. Rodriguez said the action will allow those spouses to remain in the U.S. beyond what would otherwise be a six-year limit.
“This is important because the inability of those spouses until now to apply for employment has imposed, in many cases, significant hardships on the families of H1-B visa holders,” he said. “This will now facilitate the ability of those families to remain in the United States.”
To obtain the work permit, eligible spouses must fill out a form with supporting evidence and pay a $380 fee. USCIS will begin accepting applications on May 26.
Some professional groups hailed the administration’s move. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. called it a positive step, but said giving spouses green cards would be a better move.
“Most H-1B workers are never sponsored for green cards, particularly if they work for outsourcing companies,” said the group’s president, Jim Jefferies. “More than half of H-1Bs go to outsourcing companies, whose business model is to replace American employees with easily exploited foreign workers.”