Tech layoffs leave visa holders scrambling for jobs to remain in U.S.

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After years of seemingly limitless expansion, the US technology industry has hit a brick wall. Businesses are in a state of saver mode, leading to the shedding of thousands of jobs each month and a spate of layoffs in November.

While the sudden loss of a paycheck can be disastrous for anyone, especially during the holiday season, the recent spate of cuts has had a huge impact on skilled workers living in the US on temporary visas who risk being sent home if they can not get a new job in the short term.

Technology companies are among the employers with the most approvals for H-1B visas, which are granted to those in specialty occupations that often require a college degree and additional training. For years, Silicon Valley has relied on temporary government visas to employ thousands of foreign workers in tech sectors such as engineering, biotech and computer science. That’s a big reason why tech companies are so outspoken in their defense of immigrant rights.

Workers on temporary visas often have 60 to 90 days to find a new job so they can avoid being deported.

“It’s this amazing talent pool that the U.S. is fortunate to attract, and they always live on the edge,” said Sophie Alcorn, an immigration attorney in Mountain View, California, who specializes in obtaining visas for tech workers. “Many of them are dealing with this 60-day grace period deadline. They have a chance to find a new job to sponsor them, and if they can’t, they have to leave the US. So it’s a stressful time for everyone.”

The already grim situation worsened in November, then meta, Amazontweeting, Lyft, Sales team, PK and ByDash announced major cuts in their workforce. More than 50,000 tech workers were laid off in November, according to data collected by the website Layoffs.fyi.

Amazon gave employees who were laid off 60 days to search for a new role within the company, after which their resignation would be offered, said a former Amazon Web Services employee who lost his job. The person spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity.

In fiscal year 2021, Amazon had the most approved petitions for H-1B visas, with 6,182, according to a National Foundation for American Policy review of U.S. immigration data. Google, IBM and Microsoft also ranked near the top of the list.

The former AWS employee has been in the country for two years on a student and work visa. He said he was unexpectedly fired in early November, just months after joining the company as an engineer. Despite Amazon telling him he had 60 days to find another position internally, the person said his manager advised him to apply elsewhere because of the company’s backsliding in hiring. Amazon said in November it was pausing the hiring of its corporate staff.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment beyond what CEO Andy Jassy said last month when he told those affected by the layoffs that the company would help them find new positions.

Companies generally do not specify what percentage of the discharged people have a visa. A search for “fired H1B” on LinkedIn yields a flood of messages from employees who recently lost their jobs expressing concern about the 60-day unemployment period. Visa holders share resources on Discord servers, the anonymous professional network Blind and in WhatsApp groups, the former AWS employee said.

It had been a hectic few years for foreign workers in the US, long before rising inflation and recession concerns triggered the latest round of job cuts.

The Trump administration’s hostile stance on immigration jeopardized the H-1B program. As president in 2020, Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending work visas, including those with H-1B status, alleging they hurt Americans’ employment prospects. The move drew strong rebuke from tech executives, who said the program serves as a pipeline for talented individuals and strengthens U.S. companies. President Joe Biden allowed the Trump-era ban to expire last year.

Whatever help the Biden presidency has provided is of limited value to those who are now unemployed. An engineer who was recently fired from a gene sequencing technology company Illumina said he hoped his employer would sponsor his switch to an H-1B visa. He’s here on another visa, known as Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduates to work in the US for up to three years after graduation.

The former Illumina employee, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, not only must find a new job within 90 days of the layoff date, but his OPT visa expires in August. Any company that hires him must be willing to sponsor his visa transfer and pay the associated fees. He considers going back to school to extend his stay in the US, but worries about taking on student loans.

Illumina said in November it was cutting about 5% of its global workforce. A company spokesperson told CNBC that less than 10% of affected workers were here on H-1B or related visas.

“We are engaging with each employee individually so they understand the impact on their eligibility and options for remaining in the US,” the spokesperson said by email. “We are working to assess each situation to properly care for those affected and to ensure compliance with immigration laws.”

The ex-employee said he dreams of working for Illumina, planting carrots in the US and buying a house. Now, he said, he’s just trying to find a way to stay in the country without going deep into debt. In just a few months, it’s “like a night and day difference,” he said.

WATCH: Tech layoffs double from October to November

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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