Neeharika Bhashyam got a surprising break from the U.S. government almost three years ago: The Obama administration gave the native of India and other spouses of foreign professionals permission to work. Bhashyam landed a job as a dental assistant and enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s school of dentistry.

Now the Trump administration is gearing up to scrap the work permits for spouses of skilled workers in the final stage of the green card application process — part of a harder line on the controversial H-1B visa program Trump has championed. Given the president’s “Hire American” creed, the administration will also dodge the awkward task of defending the Obama permits against a court challenge by a group of IT workers who lost their jobs to H-1B hires.

Bhashyam faces graduating with $300,000 in debt and murky prospects for putting her degree to use. She and others say families made key life decisions based the ability to work while their spouses are stuck in green card backlogs, mainly for workers from India and to a lesser extent China. They have launched a long-shot campaign to prevent the change.

“Sometimes I think, ‘What is the point of pursuing dentistry if I can’t work?’ ” Bhashyam said. “But it’s my dream to be a dentist.”

The H-1B program’s critics, who say some employers abuse it to import cheaper and more pliable labor, have cheered Trump’s tougher approach as a bid to protect American workers. Immigrant advocates see the plan to take away H-1B spouses’ work permits as the latest salvo in a broader push toward curtailing legal immigration that they say will turn off global talent.

“We are going to lose the best and the brightest to other places,” said Laura Danielson, immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron.

To work or not to work

Bhashyam arrived in the Twin Cities in 2014 to join her new husband, Chaitanya Polumetla, a software developer working on an H-1B visa, which is primarily for college graduates in specialized fields. His employer had recently sponsored him for a green card, the document that grants permanent residence and a path to citizenship.

Because of the high number of applicants from India and a per-country quota for the green cards, Polumetla landed in a backlog that his attorney warned him could last 15 years or more. Meanwhile, Bhashyam, a dentist back in India, could live in the United States but would not be allowed to work.

A year later, the Obama administration announced it would grant work permits to spouses like her. It said the change would help employers retain skilled foreigners facing long green card waits while also tapping the skills of their spouses. The U was among Minnesota employers that welcomed the change, saying its campuses had lost talented faculty who left the country in part because of the strain on sidelined spouses.

Since then, the government has granted work permits to more than 104,000 H-1B spouses. There is no data on how many of them are working, but immigrant advocates say many restarted professional careers they had been forced to put on hold.

But the Obama move angered critics of the H-1B program, who point to moves by Disney and other employers in recent years to replace U.S.-born IT employees with H-1B workers lined up by Indian outsourcing firms. New Jersey attorney John Miano filed a lawsuit challenging the spouse permits on behalf of three veteran IT workers at a California power company who say they had to train their H-1B replacements.

The H-1B program is capped at 85,000 visas a year and requires employers to show they are not grossly underpaying foreign workers. But, Miano says, the spouse work permit program does not include even such “meager protections” for U.S. workers and overstepped Obama’s authority.

The suit was dismissed, but it’s now in front of an appeals court, and the Trump administration this winter asked the court to pause the case until it could undo the rule. In a public notice, the Department of Homeland Security said it would start that process in February and invoked Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, which last April called for an overhaul of the H-1B program. Since then, companies and attorneys have reported a marked rise in audits of H-1B employers and requests for additional paperwork with applications.

Miano is encouraged, but he said the court should still rule in the case.

“Under Obama, they were going crazy undermining American workers,” he said. “While we don’t expect this under President Trump, we don’t want to see this happen again in the future.”

A broader shift

For Bilkis Indorewala, the switch looms just as years of working toward a nursing career are poised to pay off. She came to the United States from India with a master’s degree in biotechnology after she married Hussain Dalal, a graduate of the U master’s program in electrical engineering who has been waiting for his green card since 2011.

In December, Indorewala graduated with a master’s in nursing from Metropolitan State University. The couple is raising a U.S.-born daughter; they recently bought a home in Eden Prairie. Indorewala was working on her licensure and applying for jobs when the news came that she might not be able to work.

“I was finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I don’t want to sit at home with my degree.”

The spouses, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, could find an employer to sponsor them for their own work visas. But finding a workplace willing to wade into immigration paperwork is hardly a slam-dunk, and even then they would face an annual lottery in which as many as 230,000 applicants have competed for the 85,000 visas.

Danielson, the immigration lawyer, says the looming change is causing consternation. Some Indian clients frustrated with the backlogs have recently shifted gears to pursue a type of green card for foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in the U.S. economy. Others worry about children about to turn 21, when they can no longer stay in the United States on a parent’s visa.

Some H-1B spouses in Minnesota and elsewhere have highlighted the issue on social media and reached out to lawmakers. Some are traveling to Washington, D.C., early next month as part of a larger lobbying push for a bill that would eliminate per-country green card quotas. Local supporters of that bill have asked lawmakers, such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, to add the proposal to a possible compromise over DACA, the Obama deportation reprieve program for young immigrants.

“While we are empathetic to DACA children, we feel we are being left behind after doing everything by the book,” said Polumetla. “We are Dreamers as well.”

Meanwhile, Bhashyam, slated to graduate in May 2019, says she is trying to remain focused on her studies.

“Sometimes at night I worry, what is my future?” she said. “But I still have hope.”