(Reuters) - Several major tech companies including Alphabet Inc's Google and Microsoft Corp have joined the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in pushing a Seattle federal judge to order the government to speed up its processing of work permits for thousands of spouses of highly skilled visa workers.
The Chamber and the companies filed an amicus brief on Friday in a March lawsuit by H-4 and L-2 visa holders who say they have lost their jobs, or will soon, because of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' lengthy delays in renewing their work authorization documents.
In Friday's brief, lawyers from McDermott Will & Emery wrote that it currently takes about a year for USCIS to process work permit applications, due largely to a 2019 rule requiring applicants to appear in person for fingerprinting and photographs.
But an application cannot be submitted more than six months in advance, meaning it is often impossible for visa holders' spouses to avoid gaps in their employment, they said.
"Not only does a lapse in work authorization sever important professional and personal relationships and destroy institutional knowledge within companies, it requires employers to expend significant resources on searching for, hiring, and training replacements – all because the government is refusing to process a simple form within a 6-month window," they wrote.
Intel Corp, Twitter Inc, the National Association of Manufacturers and trade group TechNet also signed onto the brief.
The plaintiffs' lawyers at the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Wasden Banias did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nor did USCIS.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the spouses of H-1B and L-1 visa holders, who themselves are often highly educated and skilled, are respectively eligible for H-4 and L-2 derivative visas and temporary work authorization.
The law requires DHS to process applications to renew spouses' status and their work permits within 30 days.
DHS received about 91,000 applications for H-4 and L-2 visas in fiscal year 2020, an annual workload that could be tackled by about 10 full-time employees, according to the complaint in Friday's case.
But while staffing at DHS field offices increased nearly 30% between 2016 and 2020, the agency has deprioritized work authorization applications, leading to significant delays, they said.
The plaintiffs in April moved for a preliminary injunction requiring USCIS to process their applications immediately.
The Chamber and other amici on Friday said that while the plaintiffs rightly focused their claims on their own personal economic interests, delays in issuing work permits will have a much broader impact on businesses and the U.S. economy.
"These harms are extremely weighty; indeed, they countermand the very purposes for which the government has enacted H-4 and L-2 work authorizations, undermining a statutory and regulatory scheme expressly intended to ensure American global competitiveness," they said.
U.S. District Judge Richard Jones, who is presiding over the case, has not yet scheduled a hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction.
The case is Edakunni v. Mayorkas, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, No. 2:21-cv-393.
For the plaintiffs: Jesse Bless of the American Immigration Lawyers Association; Jonathan Wasden of Wasden Banias; Steven Brown of Reddy Neumann
For the government: Michelle Lambert of the U.S. Department of Justice