Not since the dot-com bubble of the 90s has the technology sector undergone such a massive downsizing. Seemingly bulletproof tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft have collectively shed tens of thousands of jobs in recent months. For U.S. citizens, being laid off from a prestigious job in tech may present a challenge, but for the thousands of people whose employment and immigration status are fully entwined, losing a job can also mean losing a new home.
“It’s unjust, it’s unfair, it’s cruel,” said Tahmina Watson, an immigration attorney and founder of Watson Immigration Law. For many, leaving their home country to take a job in the U.S. often required thousands of dollars in moving expenses, uprooting their lives and families, and reestablishing new lives in their new home, Watson said. “They’re going to be gone and when we need them they won’t be back.”
Around the country, layoffs in tech have come in droves. According to the L.A. Times, the tech sector eliminated about 220,000 jobs since early 2022. The Seattle Times reported that companies headquartered in the area announced plans to cut around 31,000 total jobs. Within Washington state, about 5,400 tech workers had been canned as of early March. But the globalization of technology has created an industry largely fueled by immigrant labor, much of which relies on the H-1B visa.
According to an analysis published in the Harvard Business Reviewin 2017, H-1B workers account for at least one out of 10 (12-13 percent) jobs in tech, but make up about one-half of 1 percent of U.S. jobs overall. Washington, for example, is one of the most popular homes for H-1B workers, landing the state as the fourth highest spot for such workers: 47,056 certified positions, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Foreign Labor Certification.
Significantly, those whose legal existence in the U.S. depends on an H-1B visa through their employer are given just 60 days after being laid off to either find a new job, have their status re-approved, or leave the country. That 60-day grace period is a fairly recent addition, which the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS) published in late 2016 to go into effect in early 2017.
“If we did not have the 60-day grace period I shudder to think what would happen to these people,” Watson told NWSidebar. “… These are people’s lives; they’ve been here for years and years; they came as students; they probably had their families sell everything they had to become students here.”
So what options are available to someone facing a layoff and subsequent deportation? The possible solutions, of course, will vary from immigrant to immigrant based on their specific situation. Watson outlines a variety of solutions ranging from buying time through a tourist visa to short-term policy changes to long-term immigration reform.
Long a staunch advocate for a new visa category for startup founders, in 2015 Watson published The Startup Visa: Key to Job Growth & Economic Prosperity in America, and said she plans to publish a visa guidebook for startups in July, The Startup Visa: U.S. Immigration Visa Guide for Startups and Founders. Last June, Watson coauthored an opinion piece for The Seattle Times, in which they advocated a visa category for startup founders.
“The current U.S. immigration system does not have a visa category specifically for modern-day startup founders who raise funds from angel investors or venture capital firms for their U.S. based companies. Instead, the current system expects immigrant entrepreneurs to invest their own funds or be an employee. A startup visa category will recognize business practices of the startup ecosystem including funding, revenue generation, and job creation.”
Countries like Canada developed such a program after a U.S. bill failed to gain traction in 2009, Watson told NWSidebar. “Since then Canada took our bill and made it law, and now they are one of the premier places people go to for startups.”
Indeed, as U.S. tech companies were beginning to purge payrolls and subsequently putting immigrant employees at risk of deportation, Canada announced plans to bring in 1.5 million new immigrants by 2025. And as U.S. tech companies are downsizing, Canadian tech companies are seizing the chance to poach U.S. immigrant tech talent.
Watson also advocates for doubling the grace period from 60 to 120 days. An H-1B worker who loses their job has little hope of finding a new job in 60 days or, most importantly, clearing the paperwork hurdle of transferring their application to a new employer.
Although the policy remains locked at 60 days, as of this writing, there are some signs that could change. In mid-March, the presidential Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders recommended extending the grace period to 180 days.
As a result of advocacy from around the country, Watson said, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a comprehensive and detailed FAQ, which she thinks will bring some relief to laid off immigration workers to protect their status.
Given the stakes and the relatively short timeframes facing people swept up in the rash of tech layoffs, Watson said that strong advocacy is needed on behalf of the thousands of individuals and families, and that no matter the situation someone is facing, “no action is not an option.”