Neha had been working at a start-up in Seattle for seven months when she found out her entire team was being laid off. She’s been living in the U.S. for more than a decade and has laid roots. She studied, bought a home and eventually started a family, giving birth to a son in the country that has become her home. Now she has less than 60 days to find a new job or lose her U.S. residency visa, and so will her husband.
Neha, whom TIME is referring to under a pseudonym because her separation agreement forbids her from speaking publicly, is one of hundreds of foreign workers who lost their jobs while on the short-term H-1B work visas. In a blow for the once booming tech industry, companies have been culling their workforces by the thousands, with many employers citing factors such as rapid expansion during the pandemic, rising interest rates, and high inflation. In November alone, Doordash, Lyft, Meta, and Amazon combined laid off over 20,000 employees. More than 150,000 tech workers have been laid off in 2022, according to the website Layoffs.fyi.
“The fact that keeping my son in the country he’s born in is dependent on my job is ridiculous,” says Neha, who has been in the process of applying for a Green Card for a few years.
Tech companies in particular rely heavily on foreign workers, primarily from India and China, to perform specialized roles in fields like engineering, biotechnology and computer science, requiring work visas to hire them. In 2022, Amazon received approval for more than 2,500 H-1B visas, and Meta almost 1,300. A spokesperson for Amazon told TIME that the company had “dedicated support channels and resources for any employees who are working on a visa and may be affected by role eliminations.”
These companies have not released numbers on the number of workers on H-1B visas that were impacted by layoffs but Bloomberg reported that the latest layoffs at Meta and Twitter alone affected around 350 H-1B holders. Some companies have promised to support impacted workers on visas. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg offered “dedicated immigration specialists” to help employees on visas. A spokesperson for Meta said the company offered those laid off an information packet with immigration considerations and provided a designated email address for individualized support from the company’s People team. Doordash set the termination date for its laid off foreign-national staff to March 2023 to give workers on work visas more time to find new jobs. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Informal networks have swelled to help connect those laid off to companies that are still hiring. Go Zeno, a website that aims to provide support through the immigration process, has created a database of individuals urgently seeking new jobs. More than 90% of the over 200 people on the list are on H-1B visas.
Vidhi Agrawal, who works at the software company Databricks on an H-1B visa, created a Google Form along with her friend Shruti Anand, to connect laid off H-1B visa holders with hiring managers she was seeing posting on LinkedIn. The project began as a way to help 50 or so friends and colleagues, but it has grown in reach as tech companies have made the deepest cuts since the beginning of the pandemic. “It exploded,” Agrawal says. The list now has around 600 people on H-1B and F-1 visas—a student visa issued to international students that allows them to work in the U.S. for up to 12 months—looking for new employment opportunities before their visas run out. Even though many companies are still hiring, there are not nearly enough jobs to meet the demand she’s seeing.
“We can connect a hundred hiring managers, but it’s not enough,” Agrawal says. “Given the macro environment and the holiday season, people are finding it hard.”
“When we sign up for the H-1B visa, we know the rules,” says Agrawal, who adds that knowing these parameters doesn’t make the process of finding a new job––or quickly leaving the country––any easier. “What if you have kids in school? What if you’re sick and going through treatment?” says Agrawal. “There’s so much that goes on in a person’s life, and it’s so sudden.”
A dated visa system
The difficulties faced by laid-off visa holders only represents one face of the issue, says Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a bipartisan immigration advocacy group founded by business and tech leaders. “Flaws show up in these moments of deep strain,” says Schulte, “But this is downstream from a really failed and broken system.”
Beyond the 60-day grace period, the H-1B visa program has been criticized by economists for its inefficient allocation process, the result of a system mostly unchanged since the program was created in 1990 to fill labor shortages in burgeoning, specialized fields.
“The last major update was in 1990.” says Schulte, “The global economy was radically different.”
Over the years, demand for H-1B visas has begun to far exceed the yearly cap, which currently stands at 85,000 for the fiscal year 2023. The total cap has expanded and contracted through the years. After receiving a job offer, applicants are chosen through a random lottery. For the 2023 fiscal year, 74% of visa applicants have been rejected. As a result, companies often provide offers to more candidates than they’re able to hire.
“Companies don’t get to choose which of those workers win the lottery. They end up with whatever the luck of the draw is.” says Chad Sparber, a professor of international economics at Colgate University. “Firms have to search for and give job offers to three times the number of candidates than they can actually hire. Those search costs are just wasteful.”
Over the weekend, tech workers took to the streets in San Jose, Calif., to protest after a bipartisan bill that proposed, to phase out per-country caps on employment-based immigration visas, was pulled from consideration by U.S. House Democratic leadership before a vote could be held. These changes would have particularly benefited Indian and Chinese workers in the U.S. The EAGLE Act also proposed other oversights of the H-1B process.
The H-1B is meant to be a temporary visa, valid for up to three years with an option for renewal.
This reliance on an employer discourages workers from taking their talents elsewhere. “If an employer is sponsoring that person’s Green Card, they might not ever want to shake things up and look for different work or move to a different employer,” says Sparber. “It’s a recipe for exploitation.” The U.S. limits the number of Green Cards issued by country. A 2020 Congressional Report found that, while most applicants can expect to receive their Green Card in under a year, applications for Indian workers could take up to 195 years to process because the number of applicants far exceeds the country cap.
Sparber says that larger reforms, like allocating visas based on the amount a company is willing to pay, could increase efficiency in the hiring process and address concerns about visas being allocated to outsourcing firms that underpay workers.
“If you’re a mom and pop tech firm and you need a very specialized skill, you can try to hire an H-1B worker directly, but there’s a low probability you’ll be legally allowed to hire them,” says Sparber. “If you instead go to one of these outsourcing companies, they’re going to have a stable of workers that can supply your needs. They’re like high tech temp agencies.”
Though the H-1B visa itself is valid for 60 days after an individual’s employment is terminated, many workers note that workers realistically only have only three to four weeks to secure another job offer in order to have the paperwork processed before their visa expires.
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“A lot of companies don’t want to sponsor or transfer an H-1B visa, so you’re automatically kind of weeded out from recruitment processes,” says Neha.
Neha plans to keep looking for a job, waiting for her Green Card application to be processed. She has Canadian residency through her husband, so while she would not be able to return to the U.S., where she has built a life, once her visa expires, she will not have to return to India—the only option for many H-1B visa holders. She says the current job market makes it difficult to stay optimistic. “In today’s situation, finding a job in 60 days is almost impossible,” she says. “The world kind of ends.”