Tens of thousands people have been laid off at Amazon, Meta, Salesforce and other once-gluttonous tech employers in recent months. But one group of workers has been particularly left out: US immigrants holding H-1B visas for workers with special skills.
These highly sought-after visas are issued to employer-sponsored immigrants to come to the US, and a limited number of visas are heavily used by major tech companies. But if an employee is fired, he must enlist the support of another company within 60 days or leave the country.
It’s a particularly tricky situation when the larger companies that sponsor most tech-related visas are also laying off employees and suspending hiring. Amazon and Meta, which together have announced at least 29,000 layoffs in recent months, have applied to sponsor more than 1,000 new H-1B visas in fiscal year 2022, according to the USCIS.
US dominance in science and technology has long depended on a constant influx of talented people from abroad. But the H-1B system and U.S. immigration in general have not changed much since the last major immigration bill was passed in 1986. Now, the economic uncertainty of the pandemic era is reshaping the tech giants and shedding new light on the limitations of the system. This shows that workers, companies and possibly the US as a whole are losing.
“Because our system is so backward, these visa holders have built a life here for years, they have a home, children, personal and professional connections that expand for years,” says Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, an industry company. a lobbying group that includes almost every major tech company. “They’re just stuck in this system that doesn’t give them clarity or certainty.”
Tech companies, which tend to be tough competitors, have been unusually strong on H-1B immigration over the past decade. They are applying for a large number of visas, want to increase the annual number of visas by 85,000, and are lobbying for changes to the application process that would make it easier for highly skilled workers to permanently stay in the US. An H-1B visa holder can generally only stay in the country for six years, unless their employer sponsors them to become a permanent resident of the United States or a green card holder.
This is the path followed by Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who is rarely outspoken on political issues, but was vocal about his personal support for immigration reform. He argued that both his personal success and the success of his company depended on a highly skilled immigration system.
Tech workers outside of the US also seem to love the H-1B, despite the system’s limitations. The visas give aspiring programmers the opportunity to get closer to the epicenter of the global tech industry or use their skills for a fresh start in the US.
Nearly 70 percent of the visas were for “computer-related” jobs. in fiscal year 2021, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and many of these workers end up converting their visas into U.S. residency. But due to restrictions on the number of work permit applications made each year, it can take decades for immigrants from larger countries such as India to obtain a green card, leaving many people working on a visa H-1B will be tied to the same employer for years. During this time, they are vulnerable to life-destroying shocks like those experienced by some immigrants trapped in recent high-tech layoffs.