High-skilled visa holders at risk of deportation amid tech layoffs

Congressman Bera addressing the media in the presence of Congresswoman Ross, and Senators Durbin and Padilla on May 18, 2022 on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. PHOTO: T. Vishnudatta Jayaraman, News India Times

LOS ANGELES – The massive crush of layoffs washing through the United States tech sector is sparking panic among large numbers of immigrants, who are scrambling to stay employed or risk losing their right to live in this country.

These workers, primarily Indian nationals, are in the country on temporary visas designed to help U.S. firms employ an exceptionally skilled and educated workforce. Many have been here for years, in some cases decades.

But now that many have been laid-off, their visas are set to expire in 60 days. They must leave the country unless they can find a new employer willing to navigate complex immigration rules and pay fees that can mount into thousands of dollars to hire them.

Late Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg stands during the National Anthem at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization ceremony at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library in Manhattan, New York, U.S., April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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The situation is becoming a crisis for families in the Silicon Valley and beyond, while exposing anew lawmakers’ inability to fix the nation’s immigration system, even on matters where there is broad agreement.

“It’s upsetting because things were going good and soon my wife will be delivering a baby,” said Indu Bhushan, 36. He was laid off from his job as a network engineer at PayPal this month.

A woman holds a cluster of U.S. flags during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony in Oakland, California August 13, 2013. A total of 1,225 new citizens representing 96 countries took the oath. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Bhushan, who lives in Methuen, Mass., a suburb of Boston, said he’s been looking for new work but has found that competition is fierce and some companies are not willing to go to the trouble of sponsoring his visa, known as an H1B.

“All over the U.S. there are many people laid-off and everyone’s on the hunt,” said Bhushan. He has lived in the United States since getting his master’s degree at the New York Institute of Technology in 2013.

“Returning to India just because my H1B is not being supported is the worst way to leave a country which is known as the opportunity place,” he added.

The high-tech visa mess has caught the attention of advocacy groups and some Democratic lawmakers, who’ve begun lobbying the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to extend the length of time that high-tech visa holders can remain in the country after losing their jobs, from 60 to 120 days.

In a Jan. 25 letter to Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren of California, USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou told them that extending the grace period would require a regulatory change that would “take considerable time to complete.” Instead, the USCIS is suggesting that fired high-tech visa holders buy themselves time by applying for some other visa, such as a tourist visa, although that would prohibit them from working.

A man exits the transit area after clearing immigration and customs on arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S., September 24, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan/Files

Eshoo, who represents much of the Silicon Valley, said in an interview that the letter didn’t satisfy her concerns over the issues confronting laid-off constituents on high-tech visas. She recently convened a meeting in her office of high-ranking USCIS officials, only to hear them echo Jaddou’s advice.

“This is urgent,” Eshoo said. “These H1B visa holders don’t have the luxury of time.”

Tech companies went on a hiring binge in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as demand for their products skyrocketed with workers stuck at home and kids doing virtual schooling. But their bet that demand would persist proved mistaken. Even as other sectors of the economy fared decently, with some scrambling to hire new workers, the tech sector began spiraling downward, with major companies like Google, Meta and Amazon firing workers by the thousands. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Immigration Voice demonstration relating to skilled worker visas. (Undated Photo: courtesy Immigration Voice)

Some of the companies now laying off H1B workers had previously lobbied Congress to raise the cap on how many of these visas could be issued annually. That figure currently stands at 85,000, with Indian nationals typically making up around 75 percent of applicants.

Counting H1B visa holders who arrived in previous years, there were close to 600,000 of these immigrant workers in the United States as of 2019, according to a Homeland Security Department report widely cited as the most accurate count available. The H1B visa lottery for 2024 opens in March, so it will soon become clear whether demand for high-skilled workers remains as strong as it has been.

Bhushan’s concerns after getting laid-off from PayPal echo those shared by multiple others trading stories on anonymous messaging apps like Blind, or posting on the job site LinkedIn.

Another H1B visa holder – who spoke on the condition of anonymity so his parents in India wouldn’t find out he had lost his job – voiced frustration that he’d been courted by recruiters in the past, but is now struggling to find a job so he and his wife don’t get deported.

“It’s very hard. … I’ve been here 10 years but I’m on the 60-day clock,” said the software engineer laid-off by Amazon in January.

“For the past two years the market was good and the salaries were getting higher. Now, even though you’re experienced you’ll have to compromise a lot,” he said. “I’ll probably end up at a start-up with one-third of my pay. They know I’m desperate, I have no negotiating power.”

The prevalence of Indian Americans in the tech sector is one explanation for why they dominate the ranks of those fearing deportation after waves of tech layoffs have cost many tens of thousands of workers in the United States their jobs in recent months – including around 80,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area since the beginning of 2022, according to layoff tracking website layoffs.fyi. Advocates estimate that some 30,000 or more foreign-born workers on temporary visas are among those who’ve gotten fired.

Another reason so many Indian nationals are at disproportionate risk of deportation is that the United States imposes per-country caps on employment-based green cards – the coveted ticket to U.S. citizenship.

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No individual country is allowed to receive more than 7 percent of the roughly 140,000 green card visas issued annually. For high-skilled immigrants from most countries, there are plenty to go around and the wait to apply is relatively short. But for immigrants from India and to a lesser-extent China – which sends the second-most high-tech workers to the United States – the wait can stretch for decades.

As a result, many Indian immigrants have little hope of ever obtaining a green card, even if they spend their whole lives trying. That means they’re uniquely vulnerable if they lose their job, and with it their work visa; without citizenship or a green card, their entire life in the United States is at risk.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress currently within the community,” said Aman Kapoor, head of Immigration Voice, which has been pushing Congress – unsuccessfully – to eliminate the per-country cap on green card applications. “With the endless backlogs and people in this dynamic where the situation changes so quickly, it’s a very, very stressful environment.”

The widespread uncertainty has sowed fear among the community of foreign-born tech workers who have helped turn the Silicon Valley around from the dot-com crash two decades ago, transforming it into the unstoppable jobs and innovation juggernaut it appeared up until recently to be. Along the way, the many Indian-born workers who settled in the Bay Area helped grow what has become one of the largest Indian American populations in the United States.

But now, many of the workers who not long ago were welcomed back into offices that had shuttered during the pandemic are back home again, simultaneously searching job boards for leads on new employment – and weighing their options for what to do should they not find it. For at least some of the Indian workers who came to the United States years ago, it feels like the same companies – and country – that courted them aggressively when times were good are now shutting the door in their face.

“It’s almost like the U.S. no longer wants H-1Bs,” said the laid-off Amazon software engineer. The San Jose resident, who is 35, reflects that if he “was anyone but Indian” he’d in all likelihood have a green card by now.

International travelers (reflected in a closed door) arrive on the day that U.S. President Donald Trump’s limited travel ban, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, goes into effect, at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files

Congress has tried and failed repeatedly in recent years to pass reforms to the nation’s immigration system, which lawmakers of both major parties say is broken even if they can’t agree on how to fix it. Comprehensive legislation has seemed politically untenable since the last major attempt failed a decade ago. There is strong bipartisan support for eliminating or increasing the per-country cap on green card applications, but disagreements over how to design this change has prevented it from passing.

Immigration Voice supports legislation to eliminate the per-country cap, which would disproportionately help Indians who have been waiting endlessly in the backlog. But others argue that unless the total number of green cards is also increased, immigrants from other countries could instead be forced to endure those lengthy waits. Given Congress’s track record on immigration, legislation resolving the dispute looks unlikely to pass anytime soon.

But Bhushan takes comfort in the thought that even if he and his wife are forced to return to India, the infant daughter in their arms will be a U.S. citizen. His wife’s due date is in April, but PayPal is maintaining his visa status until mid-May as part of a severance deal.

“We thought at least the child should be a U.S. citizen,” Bhushan said. “If you’re a citizen then definitely opportunities will be open for you.”

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