US job cuts put Indian tech workers’ American Dream in limbo – DW – 12/01/2022

Sujatha Krishnaswamy, who worked in the US for two-and-a-half years, is a victim of the current wave of tech job cuts in the country.

“Friday was my last day on Twitter,” an IT expert from India wrote on the LinkedIn jobs portal a few weeks ago. She loved her job and her team and said she was proud to work at a social media company: “Unfortunately, my employer didn’t love me back.”

Companies such as Facebook owner Meta, e-commerce behemoth Amazon and ride-hailing firm Lyft have announced job cuts in recent weeks as the US tech industry deals with an uncertain economic environment.

Rising interest rates and overcapacity in the industry led to 46,000 job cuts in November alone, according to data from US layoff tracker layoffs.fyi.com. showed The platform, which lists and accredits companies hiring laid-off workers, said the wave of layoffs is particularly affecting foreign workers.

Skilled foreigners fall into the visa trap

For workers like Sujatha Krishnaswamy, who came to the US on so-called H-1B visas, losing their jobs threatens their housing status. Tech jobs account for about 70% of approved H-1B recipients In fiscal year 2021. The visa allows US employers to hire foreigners for specialized 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 do not find a new job within those two months, they will have to leave the US.

“These tech layoffs are something I’ve never seen before,” said Mahir Nasir, a New York-based labor law expert. Working in the field since 2010, he was surprised by the number of laid-off IT experts who had previously worked at Meta, Twitter and Amazon and were now seeking his advice. “Many are from India and other countries in Asia,” he told DW.

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A student walks out of the Computer Science and Engineering department building inside the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai.
The Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai trains an endless pool of tech workers found across the globe.Photo: Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images

The number of Asian nationals in the US tech industry is high because of the skills shortage in the country. Under H-1B visa requirements, a US employer can fill a vacancy with a foreigner if no American worker is available to do the job.

Since 2019, major US tech firms — Amazon, Meta, Lyft, Salesforce, Stripe and Twitter — have collectively submitted 45,000 visa applications for foreign nationals, according to data from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Sujatha Krishnaswamy is one of those tech professionals who banked their professional fortunes on US companies’ insatiable appetite for foreign talent. He worked for computer manufacturer Dell for several years before switching to PwC for a brief stint in consulting. In May 2020, he started his Twitter career 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 give my heart and soul to deliver on Twitter’s security and privacy promises to users and regulators.”

The layoff in early November completely caught her off guard, she said, and it took her two days to “process what just happened.” Completely shattered, she soon realized: “My H-1B visa is exacerbating my situation.”

US visa puzzle

US immigration officials issue about 85,000 H-1B visas each year, allowing recipients to stay in the country for a maximum of six years. Many who have obtained temporary resident status wish to obtain a so-called green card through their employer, which grants them lawful permanent resident status (LPR).

Green card applicants who lose their jobs lose their H-1B visas after six months but lose their chance to get a green card if they do not find a new employer as a sponsor.

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The number of foreign workers US employers sponsor for green cards each year exceeds the annual statutory limit. In addition to this numerical limit, the statutory 7% per-country ceiling prevents certain countries from monopolizing employment-based green cards. Applicants from India, Mexico and China are particularly disadvantaged in this process because of the large number of applications from these countries.

People photograph a sign on the Meta campus in Menlo Park, California
At some American tech companies, foreigners make up about 30% of their staff in the USImage: Terry Smith/UPI Photo/Newscom/Image Alliance

Immigration policy analyst William A. Kandal wrote in a 2020 special report to the US Congress that “numerical limits and per-country ceilings for nationals of large immigrant-sending countries have created long waits for employment-based green cards.” Data provided by Kandal in the report shows that the projected waiting time for people in India to get a green card is 195 years.

Having an H-1B visa allows a foreigner not only to apply for a green card but also to purchase property in the US 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 Gellatt, senior policy analyst at the Immigration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank. It seeks to reform US immigration and integration policies.

“The prospect of having to find a job or leave the country within 60 days is definitely an enormous stress,” he told DW.

Tough times for foreigners looking for jobs

After years of a booming US tech industry, almost all major companies in the sector have stopped hiring for now. Startups, which employ significant numbers of foreigners on H-1B visas, are being squeezed financially by rising interest rates and reduced access to venture capital.

Even workers who are lucky enough to find a new job during these tough times are not allowed to stay in the US. Officials take about three weeks to process an H-1B visa, which means foreigners only have three weeks to find a new job after their layoff. Many will have to leave the US before they return.

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People wait in line for help with unemployment benefits at a One-Stop Career Center in Las Vegas.
As the tech boom ends in the US, new job offers in the sector are hard to come byImage: Chitra-Maitri/AP Photo/J. Locher

Applying for a tourist visa as a substitute for laid-off foreign workers gives them the right to stay in the US for up to 180 days and buys them time to find a new job. But immigration experts say the chances of an Indian citizen getting a tourist visa quickly are slim. According to the US State Department’s Travel.State.Gov website, the current wait time for a B1/B2 visitor visa to the US is more than 900 days.

Some tech companies, at least, are aware of the difficulties faced by their employees who are laid off overseas. Ride-hailing company Lyft, for example, decided to keep its laid-off foreign staff on its payroll for a few weeks, albeit without paying them. And Amazon has given laid-off foreigners 60 days to apply for vacancies within the company before it is completely eliminated.

In India itself, developments in the US tech industry are not entirely unwelcome as domestic employers hope to capitalize on the possibility of their highly skilled fellow citizens.

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

The co-founder and culture enforcement officer at Indian fantasy sports platform Dream11 is convinced that everyone can help “realize our hyper-growth potential in the next decade”.

This article was originally written in German.

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