MINNEAPOLIS: 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 would 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.

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 0graduates 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.

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. 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.”

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.”