Big Tech reshaped immigration policy to recruit global talent. The newest wave of layoffs have left those immigrant workers stranded.
Tech companies worked to maintain their hold on foreign talent, but recent layoffs leave the future of visa holders uncertain.
The last update to H-1B visa availability was nearly 20 years ago despite the massive changes in industry.
Employee sponsored-residency binds many immigrant workers to their current employers.
For nearly a decade, Silicon Valley has worked to sway the political pendulum of immigration policy.
Since 2013, some of the highest-valued companies in the world have pumped millions of dollars into lobbying efforts, including immigration policies that support their dominance over the limited number of "high-skilled worker" visas in the United States.
The H-1B visa category was introduced in 1990 as a way for employers to advocate for foreign-born professionals to occupy "specialty" positions in emerging industries like engineering and medical sciences. At the time, the cap was set to 65,000 visas for employment that required at least a bachelor's degree, or the equivalent. The H-1B visa cap has remained relatively the same aside from an additional 20,000 visas allocated for master's or doctorate holders in 2006, despite massive changes in labor market and industry demands in the decades since.
With an increasing population of prospects and a stagnant number of available visas, the battle for international labor became especially fierce and Big Tech worked to maintain their top spot in ensuring global talent.
A reliance on global talent
Google, Meta, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft spent nearly $70 million in federal lobbying in 2022. That number isn't so surprising as the past year set a precedent in Big Tech pushback with emerging legislation that proposes increased privacy protections, content moderation, and retribution for corporate infringements. Lobbying groups like the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which represents corporations including Meta, Alphabet, and Twitter, ramped up its highest spending in the past 7 years in 2022.
Big Tech has not only relied on global talent to maintain their demanding business endeavors but dominates the majority of the skilled-labor allowed into the country. In 2017, Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, and Google were in the top 10 employers for approved H-1B visa petitions, according to a National Foundation for American policy report. In 2021, nearly 70% of H-1B visa petition approvals went to "computer-related" occupations. With enough resources and access to top immigration lawyers, Big Tech has been able to receive approvals for nearly all of their H-1B visa petitions in past years, monopolizing most of the foreign-born technical workers.
Leaders of tech corporations have historically critiqued efforts to curtail H-1B visa distribution, calling the 2020 Trump-era visa freeze "incredibly bad policy." In the tech sphere's decade of exuberant growth, specialized and international labor appeared to be integral to their business models.
The limitations of the H-1B process
The recent waves of layoffs, however, have disparately impacted some of the immigrants recruited by these corporations. Laid off immigrant workers on H-1B visas have a 60 day grace period to secure another sponsorship or leave the country.
Sumeru Chatterjee, a former customer success manager in San Francisco, had been working in the United States for nearly a decade and even began to call it home. "I had a comfortable narrative in my head that this would continue to be my life. But the economic ripples of the COVID-19 pandemic made me realize the limitations of the H-1B process."
After he was laid off in 2020, Chatterjee also realized the 60 grace period wasn't as graceful as it seemed. "It's a pretty arbitrary number and during that time, you can't work part time, freelance, or pick up any gigs for extra income. Any future sponsorship must be of similar occupation and salary. Otherwise, you are deported at the end of your 60 days."
Many H-1B visa holders are stuck — yearslong delays and unprecedented backlogs to apply and receive Permanent Residency Cards leave workers precariously bound to their employers and new obstacles are erected with each wave of layoffs. Notably, many visa holders file the Program Electronic Review Management (PERM) through their employers as the first step to move from visa holder to permanent resident. However, after recent mass layoffs at Google, the company is pausing any future PERM applications, further entrenching visa holders in uncertainty, distress, and consequential loyalty to the corporation.
'You see the clock ticking'
Chatterjee, like many other former tech workers on work visas, relocated to Canada shortly after. There, he pointed out the vast differences in work immigration policy — workers who are laid off have until the duration of their work permit to find new employment, are able to access unemployment benefits, and have access to the national healthcare system. Most notably, the application for permanent residency is not tied to an employer, solving for the power imbalance many companies have over their H-1B visa holders in the United States.
The beginnings of many H-1B holders' 60-day sprints were marked with viral social media posts in search of new, sponsored employment. The response has involved a number of databases and resources like stillhiring.today that provide daily-updated information on hiring opportunities.
"Everyone is frustrated and nervous during times like this with mass layoffs," said Hannan Yunus Syed, a H-1B visa holder and former senior software engineer who was impacted by layoffs in January. "But H-1B holders are in a race against time — you see the clock ticking and you have 60 days to find your next gig else you see your dreams crumbling in front of you."
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