Those much-sought-after visas are given to employer-sponsored immigrants to come to the United States, and the limited supply is used heavily by big tech companies. But if a worker is fired, he must get sponsorship from another company within 60 days or leave the country.
This is an especially difficult situation when the largest companies that sponsor the majority of tech-related visas are also the ones making layoffs and hiring freezes. Amazon and Meta, which together announced at least 29,000 layoffs in recent months, have each applied to sponsor more than 1,000 new H-1B visas in fiscal year 2022, data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shows.
The dominance of the United States in science and technology has long depended on a steady flow of talented people from abroad. But the H-1B system — and U.S. immigration as a whole — hasn’t evolved much since the last major immigration law in 1986. Now, the economic uncertainty of the pandemic era is reshaping the tech giants and turning on new spotlights on the limits of the system. It shows workers, businesses and perhaps the US as a whole losing ground.
“Because our system has been so backward, these visa holders have built lives here for years, have homes, children, and personal and professional networks that span years,” says Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, a industry lobbying group that includes nearly every major technology company. “They’ve just been stuck in this system that doesn’t give them clarity or certainty.”
Over the past decade, tech companies that are typically fierce competitors have been unusually strong on the H-1B immigration issue. They apply for many visas, want to increase their annual supply by 85,000, and have lobbied for changes to the application process that would make it easier for highly skilled workers to stay in the United States forever. An H-1B visa holder can generally only stay for six years unless his employer sponsors him to become a U.S. permanent resident or green card holder. This has been the path taken by Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who is rarely outspoken on political issues but it was vocal on his personal support for immigration reform. He argued that both his personal success and that of his company depended on the highly skilled immigration system.
Tech workers outside the US also seem to love H-1Bs, despite the system’s limitations. Visas offer ambitious programmers a way to get close to the epicenter of the global tech industry or to leverage their skillset for a fresh start in the US.
Nearly 70 percent of visas went to “computer-related” jobs. in the 2021 fiscal year, according to data from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and many of these workers eventually convert their visas to permanent residence in the United States. But due to restrictions on the number of job residency applications granted each year, it can take decades for immigrants from larger countries like India to receive a green card, leaving many working people on H-1Bs tied up. to one employer for years. During that time they are vulnerable to life-shattering shocks like those facing some immigrants caught up in recent tech layoffs.
“It reveals the plight these H-1B workers are in,” says Faraz Khan, legislative director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers union. “The rules and regulations by which they work are not beneficial to any worker who gets into any kind of unfortunate situation.”
Immigrant workers aren’t the only losers right now. Tech companies have invested decades and millions of dollars in lobbying for kinder rules and an increase in the number of visas available, and in sponsoring hundreds of thousands of workers. However the process remains unchanged and layoffs mean that some skilled workers that companies may want to hire from competitors now or in the future will leave the country instead.
“The challenge is to keep that talent and be able to really allow the country as a whole to benefit from the creations that they would bring forward,” Karan Bhatia, vice president of public affairs and public policy at Google, he said in a June 2022 interview. Many Amazon employees with “long-standing” applications for green cards are still waiting, according to an October 2022 post by Beth Galetti, Amazon’s top human resources executive.
Recent layoffs disadvantage even current H-1B workers who escaped cuts and those who manage to get new visas. Immigration law prohibits companies from sponsoring a new green card for a foreign worker if they recently fired a U.S. resident with a similar job, Moore says. That means an immigrant worker who was laid off but lucky enough to land a new H-1B sponsorship could be precluded from starting a green card application if their new employer has recently made their own layoffs.
Tech industry groups and some lawmakers argue that the United States is already losing talent to overseas competitors due to its inability to reform the system. “We had such major moves to limit our already limited and complicated immigration process, other countries saw this as an opportunity they could use to increase highly skilled immigration into their countries for their own benefit,” says Moore. The United States has fallen in the International Institute for Management Development’s global competitiveness rankings in recent years. It occupied first place on the index in 2015 and had dropped to number 10 by 2021, where it remained in 2022.
Efforts to reform the H-1B system have failed in part because not everyone believes that increasing skilled immigration is a good thing.
Khan of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers argues that instead of increasing the number of H-1B visas, the US needs to invest more in skills training for American workers and that US companies should be forced to compete for the pool of domestic workers instead of attracting foreign workers who can reduce pressure to raise wages.
IT consulting firms are among the heaviest users of H-1B and pay significantly less than West Coast tech companies. “Employers and employers’ groups say this shortage of highly skilled labor is ongoing,” says Khan. “This is driven by narrative and anecdote, and not really verifiable data.”
Moore disagrees, pointing to the decline of American competitiveness in science and engineering and China’s success in doubling or even tripling the number of graduates in those areas compared to the United States. “We will continue to decline, as other countries are taking advantage of our weaknesses and our inability to act on things like getting our immigration system together,” he says.
But both sides can agree on one thing: The current system fails workers like those who have been overwhelmed by recent tech layoffs and forced to urgently find a new sponsor in the United States or start life anew elsewhere.