Tens of thousands of people have been laid off at Amazon, Meta, Salesforce and other once-voracious tech employers in recent months. But one group of workers has been particularly shortchanged: US immigrants holding H-1B visas for workers with specialist skills.
Those much-sought visas are awarded to immigrants sponsored by an employer to come to the US, and the limited supply is used heavily by large tech companies. But if a worker is laid off, they have to secure sponsorship from another company within 60 days or leave the country.
That’s a particularly tough situation when the larger companies that sponsor most tech-related visas are also those making layoffs and freezing hiring. Amazon and Meta, which together have announced at least 29,000 layoffs in recent months, each applied to sponsor more than 1,000 new H-1B visas in the 2022 fiscal year, US Citizenship and Immigration Services figures show.
US dominance in science and technology has long depended on a steady flow of talented people from overseas. But the H-1B system—and US immigration as a whole—hasn’t evolved much since the last major immigration bill in 1986. Now, pandemic-era economic uncertainty is reshaping tech giants and shining a new spotlight on the system’s limitations. It shows workers, companies, and perhaps the US as a whole losing out.
“Because our system has been so backlogged, these visa holders have built lives here for years, they have a home, and children, and personal and professional networks that extend for years,” says Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, an industry lobbying group that includes nearly all of the major tech companies. “They’ve just been stuck in this system that gives them no clarity or certainty.”
Over the past decade, tech companies that are typically fierce competitors have been in unusually strong lockstep on the question of H-1B immigration. They apply for lots of the visas, want the annual supply of 85,000 increased, and have lobbied for changes to the application process that would make it easier for high-skilled workers to stay in the US for good. An H-1B visa holder can generally only stay for six years unless their employer sponsors them to become a permanent US resident, or green card holder.
That was the path taken by Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who is rarely outspoken on political issues but has been vocal about his personal support for immigration reform. He has argued that both his personal success and the success of his company depended upon the high-skill immigration system.
Tech workers outside the US appear to love H-1Bs, too, despite the system’s limitations. The visas provide a way for ambitious coders to get closer to the epicenter of the global tech industry, or to leverage their skills into a fresh start in the US.
Nearly 70 percent of the visas went to “computer-related” jobs in the 2021 fiscal year, according to data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and many of these workers eventually convert their visas into permanent US residency. But because of restrictions on the number of employment-based residency applications granted each year, it can take decades for immigrants from larger countries like India to receive a green card, leaving many people working on an H-1B tied to one employer for years. During that time they are vulnerable to life-disrupting shocks like those facing some immigrants caught up in the recent tech layoffs.