After working in the United States for two and a half years, Sujatha Krishnaswamy has fallen victim to the current wave of tech job cuts in the country.
“Friday was my last day on Twitter,” an IT professional from India wrote on the job portal LinkedIn a few weeks ago. She said she loved her job and her team and was proud to work at the social network, adding only: “Unfortunately, my employer didn’t love me.”
Companies such as Facebook owner Meta, e-commerce giant Amazon and ride-hailing company Lyft have announced job cuts in recent weeks as the US tech industry faces an uncertain economic climate.
Rising interest rates and industry overcapacity caused 46,000 job cuts in November alone, according to US layoffs tracker layoffs.fyi.com showed. The platform, which lists laid-off employees for exposure to hiring companies, also said the wave of layoffs hit foreign workers particularly hard.
Skilled foreigners caught in the visa trap
For workers like Sujatha Krishnaswamy, who came to the U.S. on a so-called H-1B visa, losing their job puts their residency status in jeopardy. Technical jobs accounted for about 70% of approved H-1B recipients in fiscal year 2021. The visa allows U.S. employers to hire foreigners for specific jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. H-1B visa holders can change companies, but only have 60 days to do so. If they don’t find a new job within those two months, they have to leave the US.
“I’ve never seen these technology layoffs,” said Mahir Nasir, a New York-based attorney who specializes in employment law. Having worked in the field since 2010, he has been surprised by the number of laid-off IT professionals who used to work for Meta, Twitter and Amazon and are now seeking his advice. “Many are from India and other countries in Asia,” he told DW.
The number of Asians in the US tech industry is high due to the country’s severe skills shortage. Under the H-1B visa requirements, U.S. employers can fill a vacant position with an alien if there is no U.S. worker available to fill the job.
Since 2019, major U.S. tech companies — Amazon, Meta, Lyft, Salesforce, Stripe and Twitter — have filed a combined 45,000 visa applications for foreign nationals, according to data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Sujatha Krishnaswamy was one of those tech professionals who staked their professional fortunes on corporate America’s insatiable appetite for foreign talent. She worked for computer manufacturer Dell for several years before briefly moving to PwC as a consultant. In May 2020, she began her career at Twitter as a technical program manager in the security and privacy department.
“I worked day and night to successfully deliver critical user-facing privacy,” she wrote on LinkedIn, even while heavily pregnant. “Every day, I put my heart and soul into delivering on Twitter’s safety and privacy promises to users and regulators.”
The dismissal in early November caught her completely off guard, she said, and she needed two days “to process what had just happened.” Completely devastated, she soon realized, “My H-1B visa is making my situation worse.”
The US visa conundrum
US immigration authorities issue about 85,000 H-1B visas each year, which allow recipients to stay in the country for up to six years. Many of those who have secured temporary resident status seek through their employers to obtain a so-called green card, which gives them so-called lawful permanent resident (LPR) status.
Green card applicants who lose their jobs lose not only their H-1B visa after six months, but also their ability to obtain a green card if they cannot find a new employer as a sponsor.
The number of foreign workers sponsored by US employers for green cards each year exceeds the annual statutory limit. In addition to this numerical limit, the statutory cap of 7% per country prevents monopolization of employment-based green cards in a few countries. Applicants from India, Mexico and China are particularly disadvantaged in this process due to the large number of applications from these countries.
In a 2020 special report to the U.S. Congress, immigration policy analyst William A. Kandal wrote that “for citizens of large migrant-sending countries, the numerical limit and state cap have resulted in abnormally long waits for employment-based green cards .” Figures cited by Kandal in the report show that the projected wait time for people from India to receive a green card would be 195 years.
Possession of an H-1B visa allows foreigners not only to apply for a green card, but also to purchase real estate in the United States and possibly settle there permanently.
“Many H-1B workers have been in the United States for years. As a result, many have put down roots in the United States,” says Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank. which works to improve US immigration and integration policies.
“The prospect of having to find a job within 60 days or leave the country is definitely extremely stressful,” she told DW.
Difficult times for foreign job seekers
After years of a booming US tech industry, almost all major companies in the sector have stopped hiring for the time being. Startups that used to employ many foreigners on H-1B visas are under financial pressure from rising interest rates and dwindling access to venture capital.
Even those workers who are lucky enough to find a new job during these difficult times cannot be certain that they will be allowed to remain in the United States. The H-1B visa takes about three weeks to process, meaning that aliens only have three weeks to find a new job after being fired. Many will have to leave the US before they can return.
Another option for laid-off foreign workers would be to apply for a tourist visa, which entitles them to stay in the US for up to 180 days, buying them time to find a new job. But the chances of an Indian national getting a tourist visa fast enough are slim, immigration experts say. Current wait times for a B1/B2 tourist visa to the US are more than 900 days, according to the US State Department website Travel.State.Gov.
At least some tech companies are aware of the problems faced by their laid-off foreign workers. Ride-hailing company Lyft, for example, decided to keep its laid-off foreign workers on the payroll for a few weeks longer, even though they weren’t paid. And Amazon gave the fired foreigners 60 days to apply for a job opening at the company before they were written off completely.
In India itself, the development of the US tech industry is not entirely unwelcome, as domestic employers hope to benefit from the likely return of their highly skilled fellow citizens.
“Given all the tech layoffs in the US in 2022, please spread the word to remind Indians to go home,” Indian businessman Harsh Jain wrote on Twitter.
The co-founder and chief culture officer at Indian fantasy sports platform Dream11 believes everyone could help “realize our hyper-growth potential over the next decade.”
This article was originally written in German.