The U.S. government will allow spouses of certain high-tech foreign workers to apply for work permits, an accommodation designed to make things easier for families waiting in long lines for green cards.
The regulation for spouses of H-1B visas, first proposed last year and finalized as part of President Barack Obama's package of executive actions on immigration, will take effect starting on May 26.
"The inability of those spouses until now to apply for employment, to seek and obtain employment, has imposed in many cases significant hardships on the families of H-1B visa holders," said Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
The change could apply to more than 179,000 people in the next year, and 55,000 in subsequent years, Rodriguez told reporters.
Swapnil Gupta, a software engineer, described the new regulation as a "great relief." She moved to the United States from India with her husband in 2011 when he was hired with an H-1B visa.
Gupta has been unable to work in the United States. "I miss my job, I miss my financial independence," she told reporters on a conference call organized by FWD.US, a tech industry immigration lobby group.
"I'm looking forward to getting back to what I love doing," she said.
Australia and Canada have made similar offers to spouses of temporary high-skilled workers in recent years, noted Lynden Melmed, former chief counsel at USCIS.
That put pressure on the U.S. government to make the same accommodation, Melmed said, noting the waiting period for green cards can be longer than 10 years in some cases.
"The inability to work for that period of time is potentially career-ending," said Melmed, now a partner at immigration law firm Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP.
The regulation change was one of a half-dozen tweaks that Obama announced in November to address concerns by tech companies that have pushed to lift the cap on H-1B visas and speed up the process for green cards.
The USCIS is trying to move as quickly as possible on the other measures, Rodriguez said, declining to offer a more specific timeline.