Tens of thousands of people have been laid off from Amazon, Meta, Salesforce and other once voracious tech employers in recent months. But one group of workers has been particularly understaffed: US immigrants on H-1B visas for skilled workers.
These coveted visas are given to immigrants sponsored by an employer to come to the US, and the limited supply is heavily used by big tech companies. But if a worker is laid off, they have 60 days to secure a sponsorship from another company or leave the country.
That’s a particularly difficult situation when the larger companies that sponsor most tech-related visas are also laying off and freezing hiring. Amazon and Meta, which have collectively announced at least 29,000 layoffs in recent months, each applied for sponsorship of more than 1,000 new H-1B visas in fiscal 2022, figures from US Citizenship and Immigration Services show.
US dominance in science and technology has long depended on a steady influx of talented people from abroad. But the H-1B system — and US immigration as a whole — hasn’t evolved much since the last major immigration law in 1986. Now, the economic uncertainty of the pandemic era is reshaping the tech giants, putting a new spotlight on the limits of the system. It shows workers, businesses, and perhaps the US as a whole, losing.
“Because our system is so overburdened, these visa holders have been making lives here for years, with homes and children, and personal and professional networks that stretch for years,” said Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, an industry lobby group , which almost all major technology companies belong to. “They’re just trapped in this system that doesn’t give them any clarity or certainty.”
Over the past decade, tech companies, which are normally fierce competitors, have been unusually in lockstep on the issue of H-1B immigration. They apply for many visas, want to increase the annual inventory of 85,000, and have lobbied for changes in the application process that would make it easier for highly skilled workers to stay in the US permanently. An H-1B visa holder can generally only stay for six years unless their employer sponsors them to become a U.S. permanent resident or green card holder.
That was the way of Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who rarely speaks openly on political issues was vocal about his personal support for immigration reform. He has argued that both his personal success and the success of his company depended on the highly skilled immigration system.
Tech staff outside the US seem to love H-1B too, despite the system’s limitations. The visa offers aspiring programmers the opportunity to get closer to the epicenter of the global technology industry or use their skills for a fresh start in the USA.
Nearly 70 percent of visas went to “computer-related” jobs in fiscal 2021, according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and many of those workers eventually convert their visas to permanent U.S. residency. However, due to limitations on the number of employment-based residency applications granted each year, it can take decades for immigrants from larger countries like India to obtain a green card, leaving many people working on an H-1B locked to one employer for years. During this time, they are vulnerable to the life-changing shocks experienced by some immigrants affected by recent tech layoffs.