June 17, 2020


Laid-Off H1-B Visa Holders Have Only Bad Options

Olivia Carville

Hey, it’s Olivia. Back in April I wrote about how 200,000 foreign workers holding H-1B visas could lose their legal status by June. For many of them, that day has come.

H-1B visas are temporary work permits given to individuals with specialized skills, and go overwhelmingly to people working in the tech industry. The visas are linked to the specific employer that sponsors them, and H-1B holders are only legally allowed to be in the U.S. for 60 days without being paid.

Those rules have raised the stakes for the thousands of H-1B workers who lost their jobs in the wave of firings due to Covid-19. Unlike American workers, they don't qualify for unemployment benefits despite paying taxes, and they are under a two-month deadline to find a similar job if they want to maintain their legal status. It’s a tricky plight in a pandemic.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking to H-1B holders and immigration lawyers to try and determine what options these workers have. The consensus: only bad ones.

Some foreign workers are choosing to move back to their home country permanently, which hasn’t exactly been easy with many borders closed, flights grounded and goodbye parties banned. More optimistic visa holders have enrolled in U.S. colleges to try and ride out the recession in a master’s program on a student visa. Others have switched to tourist visas in hopes that the economy bounces back and new offers materialize in the next three months. And some people have quickly arranged marriages to American citizens or employed H-1B holders. (Even these shotgun Covid-19 weddings don’t guarantee timely legal status, as marriage certificates can take months to process and unions involving changes in immigration status often draw governmental scrutiny.)

Many of these workers had been hoping the Trump administration would extend the 60-day grace period out until at least September 10. TechNet, a lobbying group that represents most of the largest tech companies, had also been pushing for an extension. Instead, President Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration seems only to be getting stricter.

In April, the president halted the issuance of new green cards for would-be U.S. permanent residents. He’s now considering another order that might restrict visa holders, including H-1B’s, from entering the U.S. for up to 180 days and is reviewing suspending the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which is commonly used as a bridge for international students to get H-1B visa sponsorship.

If Trump moves forward with this plan, no sector would hurt more than tech. Every year, about three quarters of the 85,000 allotted H-1B visas go to people working in the technology industry. In 2018, Amazon.com Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. were among the top five employers of students in technical fields using the OPT program.

If the OPT program is shut down, tech would be left without one of its primary funnels for new talent. On June 9th, FWD.us, the immigration advocacy group co-founded by Mark Zuckerberg, published a blog post saying suspending OPT and restricting other immigration channels would be a “significant mistake.” Even amid a pandemic, with tech companies worrying about safely reopening their offices, grappling with a wave of virus-related disinformation, and handling global protests against racial injustice that could draw attention to their own patchy records on diversity, immigration is not far from their leaders’ minds.

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