As layoffs in the tech industry accelerate into the year-end, some workers and their families are having to scramble to find a job and remain in the U.S.
More than 150,000 people have lost jobs in the industry so far as companies look to course correct after years of high growth and high costs. And a third of those job losses have come just within the last month, according to Layoffs, an online site that tracks tech layoffs.
While job cuts usually entail workers brushing off their résumés in search of new jobs, an increasing number of workers whose work and life status are tied directly to their visa are finding themselves in limbo.
“It’s not just one person’s life at stake,” Tahmina Watson, founding attorney for Watson Immigration Law in Seattle, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “It’s their spouses. It’s the children who were probably born in the United States – children who came here when they were young and they know nothing but America as their homes. It’s going to be uprooting entire families. When somebody is being laid off and they’re on a visa, the complication is just manyfold. And it’s often invisible and too complicated for the laid-off person to explain.”
Headaches for H-1B visa holders
The hurdles surrounding the temporary H-1B work visa – a nonimmigrant visa that allows American employers to hire foreign workers for skilled jobs – have been especially pronounced. Those laid-off workers on an H-1B have just 60 days to secure a new job or risk deportation.
And with so many layoffs happening at once, Watson said workers are struggling to find that lifeline.
“When somebody is working in the United States on a visa, they have to continue to work; otherwise, they would be unlawfully in the United States,” Watson said. “So anybody who is looking at perhaps being laid off soon, they need to start thinking about it immediately. What will be their options?”
The program has served as a steady pipeline for tech talent for years, with roughly 70% of H-1B visa holders working in computer-related jobs, according to federal statistics. Amazon (AMZN) alone has filed more than 26,000 petitions to hire or rehire foreign workers on H-1B visas since 2009 while Microsoft (MSFT) has filed more than 18,000 petitions in the same period, according to the Seattle Times.
But the mass layoffs, particularly those timed around the holidays, have put renewed pressure on Washington to revisit the limitations of U.S. immigration policies around high-skilled labor.
Watson argued a 60-day grace period is simply too short, especially during an economic downturn when replacement jobs are harder to find. The layoffs also complicate the path for those who are already in line for a green card or legal permanent residency in the U.S. since an existing green card application becomes invalid once the job on file is eliminated.
These challenges are compounded by the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has struggled to clear a backlog of green card applications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictive immigration policies enacted by the Trump administration.
“Those backlogs are 10, 15 years long,” Watson explained. “And so the H-1B visa allows them to stay here while they are in the backlog. So if those backlogs are not cleared, and the job goes away, the green card application also is in jeopardy.”
60-day requirement ‘completely outrageous’
The frustrations have spilled out onto social media platforms, with laid-off workers openly pitching themselves for new jobs to maintain their legal visa status in the U.S.
One worker, who identified himself as a software engineer, said on LinkedIn: “Seems unfair that If you cross the border illegally, you get an indefinite time to be in the country (in most cases) and find a place for yourself, yet coming in legally is treated completely opposite. Immigration reforms are necessary, at least the time-off duration needs to increase so people have a fair shot of finding jobs when hiring resumes.”
Another worker, who identified himself as a laid-off Twitter employee, appealed to those on the site, saying he has just 60 days to find a new job. “I am looking for a Software/Machine Learning Engineer role immediately,” he wrote on LinkedIn.
At least one tech executive has heeded the call to help.
Joshua Browder, CEO of AI-based legal services startup DoNotPay, took to Twitter recently saying he was open to hiring H-1B visa holders at his company.
“I was expecting a few people to reach out, but I literally got hundreds and hundreds of some of the most talented engineers and designers reaching out,” Browder told Yahoo Finance. “I was shocked by just how many talented people were being laid off. I think a lot of these big companies are making a big mistake.”
Browder, who immigrated from the UK as a college student, said 25% of his 23 employees are in the U.S. on skilled worker visas. He has since gotten applications from former employees at Twitter and Stripe, among others, and offered jobs starting in January to two workers so far.
The sudden surge of unemployed workers has proven to be a blessing for his company, Browder said. He explained it allowed him to save “thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars” in recruitment fees to attract top talent.
“I’m sure a lot of these people would actually get jobs,” Browder said. “It’s just that the 60-day requirement is completely outrageous, especially in this climate. No one can make things happen that quickly, but we can. So we’re aiming to do that. But most big employers don’t work that quickly.”