- The recent tech layoffs have put those on H-1B visas on a time crunch to find a new job.
- It’s the latest turbulence to a visa system that many say isn’t working for employees or employers.
- The challenges have immigrants looking to other countries’ tech industries for opportunities.
Atal Agarwal first came to the US from India five years ago as a graduate student, eventually finding his way into the healthtech sector as a project manager. His employer sponsored his stay in the country, making him a holder of one of the United States’ coveted H-1B work visas.
But when the tidal wave of layoffs in the tech industry hit his employer, Agarwal found himself without a job — setting off a stressful 60-day timer to either find a new one that would come with visa sponsorship, or return to India.
Big tech companies like Amazon, Meta, and Twitter have sponsored close to 45,000 H-1B visa holders in the last three years, according to a report from Bloomberg. It’s unclear how recent tech layoffs have impacted many visa-holders, but The Information reported that Meta and Amazon’s recent layoffs alone likely affected hundreds.
Agarwal, and the many other visa-holders in this limbo after losing their tech jobs, are in for a real challenge if they want to stay in the US, lawyers and other experts told Insider. There are still tech jobs available even in a market downturn. Finding one willing to go through the time and expense of sponsoring an H-1B visa, however, is more difficult.
The whole experience has soured some, like Agarwal, on the idea of continuing to work in American tech at all when the threat of having to uproot an entire life is always lingering.
“Who would want to move their lives in this way?” Agarwal told Insider.
Atal Agarwal is one of many H-1B visa holders who the tech industry’s recent layoffs have affected. He’s been building a life in the US for over five years, and recently participated in an Ironman race. He said the challenges in the visa system make it hard for immigrants to feel settled here.
This feeling of disillusionment presents a competitive threat to the American tech sector. Companies like Amazon, Meta, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft have long relied on H-1B visas to bring in the talent they need to fill positions in specialized, competitive fields like engineering and computer science. Leaders like Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, have long advocated for reforming the H-1B system to allow more of that talent to work in the US.
If the current situation continues as the combination of job losses, scarce availability of H-1B visas, and strict rules for visa-holders, this specialized workforce could bring their talents to places with more permissive policies like Canada or the nations of the European Union.
“I do think the US is still the hub of some of the smartest, most diverse people in the world who come here for education, working, and living,” Soundarya Balasubramani, an author and tech worker who lives in the US on a work visa, said. “But I also think that we might be overstating the impact of living in the US sometimes.”
If that happens, experts and insiders warn, that could undermine America’s vaunted competitiveness in the tech sector.
“We have laws in effect today that don’t reflect the reality of the world we live in today in 2022,” Jason Finkelman, an immigration attorney based in Austin, Texas, said. “This antiquated immigration system does not provide robust, flexible options for the most talented, skilled foreign nationals to come to this country and work. And it hurts not only top talent, but it also hurts US employers seeking to grow and innovate with that.”
Disillusionment and frustration with working in the US
The net effect here is that the US could become less desirable as a place to live for immigrants looking to break into tech, several experts and tech workers said. Those who leave may not be interested in navigating the process for coming back, and the next generation may not be interested in the US at all.
Layoffs and bureaucracy have undermined Silicon Valley’s reputation as a good place for immigrants to build a life in the US, and might encourage some to either stay in their home countries or look elsewhere to find a job abroad, the experts said. It could hurt America’s ability to compete in the long run.
Indeed, some Indian immigrants to the US already see opportunities in returning home to participate in the country’s booming tech sector, Shruti Rajagopalan, an investor with Emergent Ventures, wrote in a recent blog post.
The 60-day countdown to find a new job is even more stressful for those with families.
Finkelman said clients have told him they really only have two to three weeks to find new jobs, or they’ll spend the rest of their time pulling their kids out of school and making arrangements to get everyone out of the country before time runs out.
“That’s highly disruptive to any family,” he said.
Actually finding those jobs is proving difficult for some, as well. One tech worker, who Twilio recently laid off, said that any job that might be willing to sponsor an H-1B visa now has at least ten other people interviewing at the same time. This person asked not to be named to preserve their professional-career prospects.
Many others have expressed similar experiences in Linkedin posts, saying they have a short window of time to find a new position and are open to any leads.
Some, like Agarwal, found a job with time to spare and are able to stay in the US. But not everybody who needs a visa will be so fortunate.
“There’s no scenario in which everyone that got laid off, specifically those that are dependent on work authorization, are gonna get a job,” Manan Mehta, the founder of Unshackled Ventures, which helps immigrants found companies in the US, said.
Experts said immigration reform is needed to turn things around
The entire situation has reignited calls for reform to the H-1B visa system, which has seen a turbulent past few years. The Trump administration tried to suspend much of the program in mid-2020. That effort, combined with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has slowed the approval process and added layers of bureaucracy.
Mehta suggested that a good start would be to lay a path for laid-off H-1B workers to go the entrepreneurial route and let them found their own startups.
Another useful area of reform would be to give visa-holders more flexibility to switch jobs without getting mired in bureaucracy, Romish Badani, the CEO of Bridge, a startup that helps employers manage the immigration process, said. His company provides legal aid and services for companies not familiar with the H-1B process so they can have the option to hire people who need visa sponsorship. Agarwal suggested that just more than 60 days to find a new job would help.
What the experts all agreed on, ultimately, is that some kind of change to the H-1B is necessary and overdue if the US wants to continue being an attractive market for specialized tech talent.
“These people are great builders,” Agarwal said. “So they are going to start building things in their own country, which impacts the economy of America.”
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