Neeharika Bhashyam plans to be a dentist but had to put her fledgling career on hold when she came to the United States as a newlywed last year.

The India native shadowed a Twin Cities dentist. She researched U.S. graduate programs. Mostly she stayed at home. “I felt like I was in jail,” she said.

That changed earlier this year when the Obama administration started granting work permits to immigrants like Bhashyam — the spouses of people who hold temporary work visas and are in the final stretch of applying for permanent, work-based green cards. Until now, the spouses have been locked out of the job market during that period.

The government said the change would help employers retain highly skilled foreigners during their long green-card waits while also tapping the skills of their spouses, who are often educated professionals themselves.

But the shift has angered critics of the work visa program, known as H-1B, who say some employers abuse it to bring in cheaper, more pliable foreign labor. A group of California workers has challenged the new rule in court, describing it as a White House overreach that sidesteps protections for U.S. workers.

Under the H-1B visa program, college-educated professionals can work in America for up to six years, and their spouses can join them. Until now, however, the spouses have not been allowed to work until the H-1B holder obtains a green card, the document that grants permanent residence and a path to citizenship.

Long waits for green cards

In recent years, backlogs for employment-based green cards have grown, with some applicants waiting a decade or longer.

That can mean long career hiatuses for the spouses, says Debjyoti Dwivedy, a Twin Cities data storage engineer and vice president of the advocacy group Immigration Voice.

“The spouses of high-skill immigrants are often high-skill immigrants who want to contribute to the U.S. economy,” Dwivedy said.

Roughly 179,000 spouses were expected to apply for work permits in the first year of the new rule, and up to 55,000 each year after that, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency couldn’t say how many have actually applied or been approved since the new rule took effect in May. In Minnesota, an average 2,230 H-1B visas annually were granted in recent years.

Bharathi Gudi and her husband moved to the Twin Cities from India in 2011 after he got a job as a software engineer. Local retailers took notice of her master’s degree from the London College of Fashion, but they were reluctant to sponsor her for her own work visa, an uncertain process as demand for the visas has outstripped supply in the rebounding economy.

The family considered moving back to India or to Canada. But in the end, Gudi enrolled in a fashion MBA program in New York, despite misgivings about a long-distance marriage and student loans.

At the University of Minnesota, spouses’ inability to work has contributed to faculty decisions to leave the university and the country, according to Mark Schneider, associate director for employment-based visas. “It puts a lot of pressure on families when one spouse comes here to do big stuff and the other has to sit on their hands,” he said.

Displaced IT workers file suit

The Obama administration had just that sort of frustration in mind, arguing that the new rule would help U.S. companies retain foreign talent and ward off competition from countries with looser immigration policies.

To John Miano, however, that’s hardly a selling point. Miano, a New Jersey attorney who has successfully challenged previous immigration changes by the Obama administration, filed suit on behalf of a contingent of IT workers who were laid off by a California power company that enlisted two Indian outsourcing companies to line up replacements. That incident, and similar layoffs at Disney, re-energized congressional critics of H-1B visas.

Miano says the change harms the plaintiffs he represents — three veteran IT workers who say they had to train their own foreign-born replacements: It makes life easier for their rivals and brings in additional competition from their spouses.

The H-1B program is capped at 85,000 annual visas and requires employers to prove that they are not grossly underpaying their foreign hires, notes Miano. The new rule means that the Obama administration, without congressional approval, is weakening such “meager” worker protections, he said.

“The Department of Homeland Security has decided they have the unlimited authority to allow aliens to work in the United States,” Miano said. “They can wipe out every protection for American workers.”

A district judge has denied the plaintiffs’ request to block the new work permits; a final ruling is expected early in 2016.

More choices for spouses

In some ways, the spouses now are in a better spot than the H-1B visa holders, said Sandra Feist, head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s chapter in the Twin Cities. Workers who apply for green cards cannot change jobs, or in some cases even accept promotions, while they wait for approval, at the risk of jeopardizing their applications. Nor can they start their own companies.

The Obama administration has promised to grant them more flexibility, but meanwhile, says Feist, “The sponsor is forced to stay in the exact same position for the foreseeable future, and the spouse can work anywhere or start a business.”

She recently put together a work permit application for a woman from India who has the equivalent of an advanced degree in alternative medicine and set out to open her own clinic.

Since receiving her work permit, Bhashyam, the dentist-in-training from India, got a part-time job as a dental assistant in Minneapolis, which will give her an edge when she applies for competitive dentistry programs next year. Another part-time job at a department store has given the family budget a boost. Bhashyam and her husband, Chaitanya Polumetla, are buying a house in Maple Grove.

And Gudi landed a job with a fashion technology start-up in New Jersey.

“This change was a big relief for me and other spouses like me,” she said.

‘A short-term fix’

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Bill Blazar says the change is helpful but that he still wants to see comprehensive work-based immigration reform enacted by a U.S. Congress that remains deadlocked on the issue.

And advocates such as Dwivedy say the new rule for spouses doesn’t solve the problem of lengthy waits for employment-based green cards.

“The long-term solution lies in the green card,” he said. “This is a short-term fix.”