High-skilled visa holders at risk of deportation amid tech layoffs

Keywords Employment / Technology
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The massive crush of layoffs washing through the United States tech sector is sparking panic among large numbers of immigrants, who are scrambling to stay employed or risk losing their right to live in this country.

These workers, primarily Indian nationals, are in the country on temporary visas designed to help U.S. firms employ an exceptionally skilled and educated workforce. Many have been here for years, in some cases decades.

But now that many have been laid-off, their visas are set to expire in 60 days. They must leave the country unless they can find a new employer willing to navigate complex immigration rules and pay fees that can mount into thousands of dollars to hire them.

The situation is becoming a crisis for families in the Silicon Valley and beyond, while exposing anew lawmakers’ inability to fix the nation’s immigration system, even on matters where there is broad agreement.

“It’s upsetting because things were going good and soon my wife will be delivering a baby,” said Indu Bhushan, 36. He was laid off from his job as a network engineer at PayPal this month.

Bhushan, who lives in Methuen, Mass., a suburb of Boston, said he’s been looking for new work but has found that competition is fierce and some companies are not willing to go to the trouble of sponsoring his visa, known as an H1B.

“All over the U.S. there are many people laid-off and everyone’s on the hunt,” said Bhushan. He has lived in the United States since getting his master’s degree at the New York Institute of Technology in 2013.

“Returning to India just because my H1B is not being supported is the worst way to leave a country which is known as the opportunity place,” he added.

The high-tech visa mess has caught the attention of advocacy groups and some Democratic lawmakers, who’ve begun lobbying the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to extend the length of time that high-tech visa holders can remain in the country after losing their jobs, from 60 to 120 days.

In a Jan. 25 letter to Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren of California, USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou told them that extending the grace period would require a regulatory change that would “take considerable time to complete.” Instead, the USCIS is suggesting that fired high-tech visa holders buy themselves time by applying for some other visa, such as a tourist visa, although that would prohibit them from working.

Eshoo, who represents much of the Silicon Valley, said in an interview that the letter didn’t satisfy her concerns over the issues confronting laid-off constituents on high-tech visas. She recently convened a meeting in her office of high-ranking USCIS officials, only to hear them echo Jaddou’s advice.

“This is urgent,” Eshoo said. “These H1B visa holders don’t have the luxury of time.”

Tech companies went on a hiring binge in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, as demand for their products skyrocketed with workers stuck at home and kids doing virtual schooling. But their bet that demand would persist proved mistaken. Even as other sectors of the economy fared decently, with some scrambling to hire new workers, the tech sector began spiraling downward, with major companies like Google, Meta and Amazon firing workers by the thousands. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Some of the companies now laying off H1B workers had previously lobbied Congress to raise the cap on how many of these visas could be issued annually. That figure currently stands at 85,000, with Indian nationals typically making up around 75 percent of applicants.

Counting H1B visa holders who arrived in previous years, there were close to 600,000 of these immigrant workers in the United States as of 2019, according to a Homeland Security Department report widely cited as the most accurate count available. The H1B visa lottery for 2024 opens in March, so it will soon become clear whether demand for high-skilled workers remains as strong as it has been.

Bhushan’s concerns after getting laid-off from PayPal echo those shared by multiple others trading stories on anonymous messaging apps like Blind, or posting on the job site LinkedIn.

Another H1B visa holder – who spoke on the condition of anonymity so his parents in India wouldn’t find out he had lost his job – voiced frustration that he’d been courted by recruiters in the past, but is now struggling to find a job so he and his wife don’t get deported.

“It’s very hard. … I’ve been here 10 years but I’m on the 60-day clock,” said the software engineer laid-off by Amazon in January.

“For the past two years the market was good and the salaries were getting higher. Now, even though you’re experienced you’ll have to compromise a lot,” he said. “I’ll probably end up at a start-up with one-third of my pay. They know I’m desperate, I have no negotiating power.”

The prevalence of Indian Americans in the tech sector is one explanation for why they dominate the ranks of those fearing deportation after waves of tech layoffs have cost many tens of thousands of workers in the United States their jobs in recent months – including around 80,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area since the beginning of 2022, according to layoff tracking website layoffs.fyi. Advocates estimate that some 30,000 or more foreign-born workers on temporary visas are among those who’ve gotten fired.

Another reason so many Indian nationals are at disproportionate risk of deportation is that the United States imposes per-country caps on employment-based green cards—the coveted ticket to U.S. citizenship.

No individual country is allowed to receive more than 7 percent of the roughly 140,000 green card visas issued annually. For high-skilled immigrants from most countries, there are plenty to go around and the wait to apply is relatively short. But for immigrants from India and to a lesser-extent China—which sends the second-most high-tech workers to the United States—the wait can stretch for decades.

As a result, many Indian immigrants have little hope of ever obtaining a green card, even if they spend their whole lives trying. That means they’re uniquely vulnerable if they lose their job, and with it their work visa; without citizenship or a green card, their entire life in the United States is at risk.

“There’s a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress currently within the community,” said Aman Kapoor, head of Immigration Voice, which has been pushing Congress—unsuccessfully—to eliminate the per-country cap on green card applications. “With the endless backlogs and people in this dynamic where the situation changes so quickly, it’s a very, very stressful environment.”

The widespread uncertainty has sowed fear among the community of foreign-born tech workers who have helped turn the Silicon Valley around from the dot-com crash two decades ago, transforming it into the unstoppable jobs and innovation juggernaut it appeared up until recently to be. Along the way, the many Indian-born workers who settled in the Bay Area helped grow what has become one of the largest Indian American populations in the United States.

But now, many of the workers who not long ago were welcomed back into offices that had shuttered during the pandemic are home again, simultaneously searching job boards for leads on new employment—and weighing their options for what to do should they fail to find it. For at least some of the Indian workers who came to the United States years ago, it feels like the same companies—and country—that courted them aggressively when times were good are now shutting the door in their face.

“It’s almost like the U.S. no longer wants H1Bs,” said Aki, 35. The San Jose resident reflects that “if I was anyone but Indian” he’d in all likelihood have a green card by now.

Congress has tried and failed repeatedly in recent years to pass reforms to the nation’s immigration system, which lawmakers of both major parties say is broken even if they can’t agree on how to fix it. Comprehensive legislation has seemed politically untenable since the last major attempt failed a decade ago. There is strong bipartisan support for eliminating or increasing the per-country cap on green card applications, but disagreements over how to design this change has prevented it from passing.

Immigration Voice supports legislation to eliminate the per-country cap, which would disproportionately help Indians who have been waiting endlessly in the backlog. But others argue that unless the total number of green cards was also increased, immigrants from other countries could instead be forced to endure those lengthy waits. Given Congress’s track record on immigration, legislation resolving the dispute looks unlikely to pass anytime soon.

For immigrants like Bhushan and Aki, that means that the promise of U.S. citizenship may remain forever out of reach.

But Bhushan takes comfort in the thought that even if he and his wife are forced to return to India, the infant daughter in their arms will be a U.S. citizen.

“If you’re a citizen then definitely opportunities will be open for you,” Bhushan said.

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13 thoughts on “High-skilled visa holders at risk of deportation amid tech layoffs

  1. Let’s brung these High tech Visa holders to Indianapolis so they
    can help fill the job gaps and start tech businesses.

    This is a golden opportunity for Indianapolis.

    1. I knew that Salesforce was talking about layoffs, but I haven’t
      heard that they actually did it in Indianapolis.

    2. Joe B.
      We always here about the brain drain in Indianapolis.
      Which is it. Di we have a brain drain or not.

    3. Yes, I know several … and they’ve made layoffs subsequent of the initial announcement, too.

      Salesforce just finished a 57 story building in Chicago to serve as their regional HQ. Throw in Benioff‘s distaste for the social legislation and I think it’s a done deal.

      It is an interesting idea to recruit H1B visa holders and pay them a LOT of money to stay in Indiana until they land equivalent jobs …but I’m gonna guess that welfare for foreigners won’t be politically popular.


    4. Joe B.
      Not talking out welfare for for Visa holding tech guys. But opportunities
      for these people to come to Indianapolis. There may be many potential
      high tech entrepreneurs we could lure here.

      I knew Salesforce built a brand 57 story tower in Chicago. That doesn’t
      bode well for Indianapolis. In fact it’s very concerning. Salesforce came
      here because they bought a very successful tech company downtown.
      If Salesforce pulls out, they’ll take that with them.

      No fan of Bemioff. He’s reacting to the leftwingers over the top
      shreiking that is based far more in uninformed emotional shreiking than
      the facts. But Benioff is the shot caller and he could really hurt
      downtown Indianapolis.

    5. Joe B.

      Are city or state organizations in contact with Salesforce officals trying
      to keep them here in Indianapolis??? If not, why not. We lose Salesforce,
      that will be a huge loss in Indy’s efforts to retain and recruit high tech
      companies to Indianapolis.

      Second, I think our state legislature passes laws that are not needed.
      A solution in search of a problem. It’s always disastrous.
      That said, it doesn’t help when our local media over react either.
      We have a leftwing activist Indy Star and left leaning broadcast media
      that are always to quick to side with the leftwing activists when they shreik.

    6. Sorry, you lost me when you blamed the media in some misguided attempt to “both sides” things.

      There’s nothing to react to if people don’t pass dumb laws that get the media lots of hits and attention.

      If we had a legislature worth a darn they’d have listened to Mitch 20 years ago when he said to pause the social issues stuff and focus on jobs. But we’ve got a bunch of legislators tired of their kids leaving home for the Indianapolis area, so instead of building themselves up, they’ve chosen to tear Indianapolis and the state down to their crumbling level.

      To use the farming analogy, we’ve chosen to eat our seed corn instead of planting it.

      I suspect Indianapolis has been trying to keep Salesforce since the day they bought ExactTarget, the same way they’ve been trying to keep every major employer in the city.

    7. Joe B.
      Agreed that our state legislature should stay away from social issues.

      But our local media push social issues constantly.
      There’s a small number of leftwing activists that completely over react
      and the media backs them every step of the way.

      This is what Benioff is heating. A small number of far left shreikers being
      amplified much larger than what they are by a leftwing activists Media.

      But I do agree that the state legislature should stay away from social

      Also, not getting any sensible ideas from the Dems either unfortunately.
      And The Dems have a very friendly Media here.

    8. Thanks! Exact Target. I couldn’t remember the name.

      I sincerely hope our local and state leaders are staying in contact with our
      local downtown corporations, Salesforce included.
      To not would be very negligent.

    9. So blow smoke and just tell people everything is bunnies and rainbows. Just ignore that special session Indiana convened a few months ago to ban abortion and write about the tax rebate instead. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, it seems.

      There’s a reason that these companies find themselves with employees who want to leave Indiana and it’s not the fault of the local media.

      Benioff was quite vocal about RFRA in 2015. Salesforce signed the deal with Chicago in 2018. If you don’t think those two items were linked … c’mon.

      The Democrats have ideas. They go nowhere at the Statehouse because there are so few Democrats that their presence isn’t required to conduct business. Justin Moed proposed fixing the road funding formula so Indianapolis stopped giving welfare to the rest of the state. You know where it went? Nowhere because Republicans killed it.


      The blame for your problems falls on Statehouse Republicans. They are a hindrance to the future of the state of Indiana. You can whatabout that all day but you’re just kidding yourself.

  2. Joe B.

    Nope! No blowing smoke or denial.
    The R’s do a lot of rediculious things. So do the Dems.
    I don’t like either party.

    But you can’t tell me that a very leftwing Media here isn’t part of the
    problem only covering social issues from one side of the coin.
    The local leftwing Media, print and broadcast amplify a thousand times
    what a small number of far leftwing advocates shreik ( like their hair is on fire ).
    That’s the information that Benioff is getting. A very amplified
    one sided negative view of Indianapolis.
    Second, I never felt Benioff wanted to stay in Indianapolis to begin with.
    The founders of Exact Target were the reasons why he stayed.

    That said, the BONEHEADS on the Republican side aren’t helping matters
    either with very Unnecessary legislation.
    The road funding isse ( formula) that you mentioned is a prime e ample.

    You keep stating that all the problems in Indianapolis lay at the feet
    of the R dominated statehouse.
    I contend that local Dems aren’t helping the cause either with their soft
    on crime policies ( for racial equity ), and other DEI utter nonsense.
    Local Dem city council members more concerned with no meat Mondays
    or some rediculious climate feel good policy.

    The R’s and the D’s had better start working together or our city.
    Our downtown core is suffering.
    This is why we need the local business leaders to step up.
    They will put ideological and political differences to the side.

    1. I can tell you that because it makes no sense. You’re blaming someone for building a house of wood for arson … as opposed to blaming the arsonist.

      If what you said was true, Benioff would be much happier if he listened to WIBC. They do nothing but talk about all the great things going on, right?

      The issue isn’t “media bias”. The issue is stupid laws that chase away employers and residents.

      We lose jobs in the state of Indiana due to the policies at the state level. The state of Indiana — IEDC – controls the money when we try to lure companies. That’s how it works. All Indy can do is yet another TIF district.

      And when Indianapolis tries to do something at the city level, like deal with terrible landlords, the state of Indiana swoops in and negates the bill.

      What soft on crime policies? A reminder that the last Indianapolis budget had so much more money for the police that it passed on a bipartisan basis. If your idea of “soft on crime” is things like the police oversight board having a majority of citizens instead of officers, I am not sure what to tell you.

      The city of Indianapolis is working on things like low barrier shelters. I don’t see any Republicans at the Statehouse showing much of an interest. The Marion County Republican Party is just as useless as the Indiana Democratic Party at the state level.

      So get back to me when Indianapolis Republicans, or you for that matter, have some actual ideas besides “work together”. All Republicans in Indianapolis have to offer are ”we aren’t the Democrats” which isn’t going to fly. A reminder, Marion County Republicans went from having a majority when they drew the maps to having just five people on the CCC … with maps they got to draw to their benefit!