H-1B Visa Holders in a tailspin

Currently, massive layoffs in the Bay Area are sending tech workers on H-1B visas into a tailspin. A clock starts ticking as they desperately attempt to find new employment to continue to stay legally in the United States or self-deport.

Once someone is laid off by the employer who provided them an H-1B visa, they have 60 days within which to find a new employer who will renew their H-1B or transfer to a different immigrant visa. A lot of the workers and their families are in panic mode right now, because even if they did find new jobs or want to transition to a different visa, tourist, entrepreneur, or student, the paperwork involved in transitioning can take a long time.

One tech worker, who did get another offer soon after his layoff, told me (on condition of anonymity) that he has to get a certified labor condition application and approval from the Department of Labor, which currently may take longer than this grace period.

In 2021, 74% of H-1B Visa petitions were approved for Indians

A report from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shows that of all the H-1B petitions approved in FY 2021, 74.1 percent “were for beneficiaries whose country of birth was India.” An employment-based H1-B visa is awarded for 3 years and can be renewed for an additional 3 years, so applying for a Green Card is the most plausible visa choice if you wish to remain in the US after exhausting your 6 years of H-1B visa time.

In 2023, more than 68,502 tech workers have lost their jobs, according to Layoffs.fyi, a tracker created by San Francisco-based Roger Lee. The layoffs have deeply impacted Indian tech workers on H-1B visas as they face the grim reality of having to leave the US. Most of them have built their lives in this country, have mortgages, children in school, and are on a green card track. Many of their children are U.S. citizens who have lived here their entire lives; some have children who are juniors and seniors in high school and getting ready to apply to colleges.

Lives are slowly unraveling before their eyes, making the situation fraught with stress.

Life is unraveling for H-1B tech workers

An appeal from a laid-off worker
An appeal from a laid-off tech worker (image courtesy: Twitter)

One laid-off tech employee I spoke to, who wants to stay anonymous, says, “When I came to the States, leaving my family and friends, it was a pretty big move. I came here to do something for myself and my family. Then, I decided to pursue my masters over here so that I could work freely without any visa issues. Then came this scenario where tech companies started firing employees. I don’t know what will happen next as many companies are freezing their hiring process. At the last company I worked for, my manager position was eliminated without a word. Ultimately, I want to say I don’t know how long I will be here looking. It is scary.”

Even though most of the big tech companies, like Meta and Amazon, were quick to offer immigration help to laid-off employees to figure out the implications of the layoffs and next steps, these did not prove to be enough. Employees were typically connected to immigration lawyers who laid out the standard options, propelling them to take matters into their own hands. Laid-off tech workers increasingly turned to each other.

LinkedIn and private Facebook groups are inundated with pleas to strangers, hoping to tap into the deep reserves of hiring managers, as they express concern about the 60-day unemployment window, and hoping to get connected to open job opportunities. 

A database for laid-off H-1B workers

Days after the layoffs at Twitter, Vidhi Agrawal, a product manager with Databricks, says she had several of her friends and acquaintances approach her to see if she could connect them with her network and if she knew of any openings. Being in the same boat as them, (Agarwal is also on an H-1B visa but still employed), she decided to create a database for laid-off workers on H-1B visas—connecting relevant candidates with recruiters and hiring managers she knew.

Vidhi Agarwal
Vidhi Agrawal (image courtesy: Vidhi Agrawal)

“If you are an H-1B visa holder and were impacted in the recent tech layoffs there’s help available,” she wrote on LinkedIn, where she posted the database.

Initially, Agarwal thought she would make it public and get a few hundred people to sign up in the google form to get connected. “I did not anticipate the scale of it, in a matter of days, it had over 1,000 resumes,” says Agrawal.

Hiring managers and recruiters were actively using it and had reached out to between 200-300 people. Even as she sets about helping as many laid-off H-1B visa tech workers as she can, Agarwal says she is a contrarian, “when you come to this country, you know the rules, you know how the work visas work. It’s not like anything has changed.”

Yet, she acknowledges that it is extremely painful especially for people later in their careers – they are on the green card track, and have built their lives in the U.S.

Combining connections

Shruti Anand
Shruti Anand (image courtesy: Shruti Anand)

Swamped with the scale of resumes, Agarwal roped in Shruti Anand, a friend, and former colleague (they both worked at Splunk), who works at Snowflake, to help. Anand also had numerous queries for help. Even though the two of them were not affected by the layoffs, they wanted to help those that were, as their combined network of connections on Linked is vast.

Together, the two women started spending evenings, after work, going through and vetting hundreds of résumés before forwarding them to employers still hiring. Their google form is a wonderful resource, but it was hard for recruiters and hiring managers to easily find the skillset they were looking for.

When Shruti Anand was on vacation in India in December 2022, her brother, Pranav offered to help. Pranav is a computer science undergrad student in Singapore. He and his friend Manav were able to maintain the vast database.

The young students did it without any financial assistance. “This is a hard time, and it can happen to anyone. We are all in this together,” stresses Agarwal.

Meeting the 60-day grace period deadline

They have consequently moved to a website and connecting portal, to make it more organized for recruiters and hiring managers looking for a particular skill set. They have found that at any given time more than 30-40 hiring managers are perusing the resumes. “We have found that hiring managers are also more than willing to streamline the interview process to make it shorter,” explains Anand. This helps meet the 60-day grace period deadline.

“It is in times of darkness that we see innovation happen. Splunk was founded during a recession. We learn from this, try and upscale, improvise, and improve to be irreplaceable. Tech will evolve with us,” adds Anand.

Both Anand and Agarwal are Product people and so for them, outcomes matter. It’s not what you have built, but the fundamental question we need to ask is: Is it working?

Clearly it is, over the few months, they have seen this database has helped many, many H-1B visa holders find new jobs…and a new lease on life.

Change.Org Petition for H1-B Visa Holders

This week, US-based diaspora organizations, Foundation for India and Indian Diaspora Studies and Global Technology Professionals Association (GITPRO) have launched a change.org petition with an appeal to President Biden, the Secretary of DHS, and the director of USCIS. 

The petition is asking for an extension of the current grace period for H1-B visa holders, from 60 days to 1 year (or at a minimum 6 months), on humanitarian grounds. They believe that this extension will pause this brain drain and ensure that the U.S. will continue to be a world leader in technology and innovation.

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor,...