US job cuts leave Asian tech workers in limbo – DW – 01/12/2022

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,” the Indian computer scientist wrote on the LinkedIn job portal a few weeks ago. She said she loved her job and her team, and was proud to work for the social media company, adding, “Unfortunately my employer didn’t love me back.”

Companies like Facebook owner Meta, e-commerce giant Amazon and ride-sharing company Lyft have announced job cuts in recent weeks as the US tech industry faces an uncertain economic climate.

Rising interest rates and overcapacity in the industry led to 46,000 job cuts in November alone, according to data from the US layoff tracking site. show. The platform, listing laid-off employees to expose them to hiring companies, also said foreign workers were particularly affected by the wave of layoffs.

Skilled foreigners caught in the visa trap

For workers like Sujatha Krishnaswamy, who came to the United States on a so-called H-1B visa, losing their jobs threatens their residency status. Technical jobs accounted for approximately 70% of approved H-1B recipients in fiscal year 2021. The visa allows U.S. employers to hire foreigners for skilled jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. H-1B visa holders can switch companies, but only have 60 days to do so. If they don’t find a new job within these two months, they have to leave the country.

“These tech layoffs are something I’ve never witnessed before,” 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 licensed IT professionals who previously worked for Meta, Twitter and Amazon and now seek his advice. “A lot are from India and other countries in Asia,” he told DW.

A student walks out of the Computer Science and Engineering department building inside the Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai
Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai forms an endless pool of tech workers who can be found in jobs across the globeImage: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

The number of Asian nationals in the US tech industry is high due to a huge skills shortage in the country. Under H-1B visa requirements, U.S. employers can fill a vacancy with a foreign national if there is no U.S. worker available to do the job.

Since 2019, major US tech companies — Amazon, Meta, Lyft, Salesforce, Stripe and Twitter — have together filed visa applications for 45,000 foreign nationals, according to data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service..

Krishnaswamy was one of those tech professionals who had staked their professional fortunes on this insatiable thirst for foreign talent. She had worked at computer maker Dell for several years before moving to PwC for a brief stint in consulting. In May 2020, she started her Twitter career as a technical program manager in the Security and Privacy department.

“I worked day and night to be successful in providing critical privacy to users,” even when she was heavily pregnant, she wrote on LinkedIn. “I gave my heart and soul every day to uphold Twitter’s security and privacy promises to users and regulators.”

The dismissal in early November caught her completely off guard, she said, and it took her two days “to process what had just happened”. She quickly realized, “My H-1B visa makes my situation worse.”

The U.S. visa conundrum

US immigration authorities issue approximately 85,000 H-1B visas each year, allowing recipients to stay in the country for up to six years. Many who have been granted temporary resident status seek to acquire a so-called green card through their employers, which gives them legal permanent resident status.

Green card applicants who have lost their jobs not only lose their H-1B visa after six months, but will also lose the opportunity to obtain a green card if they do not find a new employer as a sponsor.

The number of foreign workers sponsored for green cards by US employers exceeds the annual statutory limit each year. In addition to this numerical limit, a legal cap of 7% per country prevents the monopolization of employment-based green cards by 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.

People photograph a sign at the Meta campus in Menlo Park, California
At some US tech companies, foreigners make up nearly 30% of staffImage: Terry Schmitt/UPI Photo/Newscom/picture alliance

Immigration policy analyst William A. Kandel wrote in a 2020 special report to the U.S. Congress that “for nationals of major migrant-sending countries […] the numerical limit and cap per country created excessively long waits for employment-based green cards.” Data provided by Kandel in the report shows that for people from India, the expected wait time for receiving a green card would be 195 years.

Possession of an H-1B visa not only allows foreigners to apply for a green card, but also allows them to purchase property in the United States and possibly move 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,” said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank. . which seeks to improve US immigration and integration policies.

“The prospect of either having to find a job within 60 days or leaving the country is surely extremely stressful,” she told DW.

Difficult times for foreigners looking for work

After years of a boom in the US tech industry, nearly every major company in the industry has stopped hiring for the time being. Startups, which employed significant numbers of foreigners on H-1B visas, are financially constrained by rising interest rates and diminished access to venture capital.

Even workers who are lucky enough to find a new job in these difficult times cannot be sure of being allowed to stay in the United States. Processing an H-1B visa takes authorities about three weeks, which means foreigners only have three additional weeks to find a new job after being fired. Many will have to leave the United States before they can return.

People line up for help with unemployment benefits at the One-Stop Career Center in Las Vegas
With the end of the tech boom in the United States, new job openings in the sector are difficult to findImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Locher

An alternative for laid-off foreign workers would be to apply for a tourist visa that gives them the right to stay in the United States for up to 180 days, giving them time to seek new employment. But the chances of an Indian national getting a tourist visa fast enough are slim, according to immigration experts. Current wait times for a B1/B2 visitor visa to the United States are over 900 days, according to the US State Department’s travel information website..

Some tech companies, at least, are aware of the issues facing their laid-off employees overseas. The ride-sharing company Lyft, for example, decided to keep a few more weeks on its payroll its laid-off foreign employees, but without paying them. And Amazon has given terminated strangers 60 days to apply for a vacancy with the company before unsubscribing them altogether.

In India itself, developments in the US tech industry are not entirely undesirable, as domestic employers hope to benefit from the likely return of their highly skilled fellow citizens.

“With all the 2022 tech layoffs in the US, spread the word to remind Indians to go home,” Indian businessman Harsh Jain wrote on Twitter.

The co-founder and head of culture app at Indian fantasy sports platform Dream11 believes they could all help “to realize our potential for hyper-growth over the next decade”.

Twitter employees file lawsuit amid mass layoffs

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This article was originally written in German.

Correction, December 1, 2022: An earlier version of this article misspelled William A. Kandel’s name. DW apologizes for the mistake.

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