Tens of thousands of people have been laid off at Amazon, Meta, Salesforce and other once-voracious tech employers in recent months. But one group of workers has been particularly shortchanged: US immigrants holding H-1B visas for workers with specialist skills.

Those much-sought visas are awarded to immigrants sponsored by an employer to come to the US, and the limited supply is used heavily by large tech companies. But if a worker is laid off, they have to secure sponsorship from another company within 60 days or leave the country.

That’s a particularly tough situation when the larger companies that sponsor most tech-related visas are also those making layoffs and freezing hiring. Amazon and Meta, which together have announced at least 29,000 layoffs in recent months, each applied to sponsor more than 1,000 new H-1B visas in the 2022 fiscal year, US Citizenship and Immigration Services figures show.

US dominance in science and technology has long depended on a steady flow of talented people from overseas. But the H-1B system—and US immigration as a whole—hasn’t evolved much since the last major immigration bill in 1986. Now, pandemic-era economic uncertainty is reshaping tech giants and shining a new spotlight on the system’s limitations. It shows workers, companies, and perhaps the US as a whole losing out. 

“Because our system has been so backlogged, these visa holders have built lives here for years, they have a home, and children, and personal and professional networks that extend for years,” says Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, an industry lobbying group that includes nearly all of the major tech companies. “They’ve just been stuck in this system that gives them no clarity or certainty.”

Over the past decade, tech companies that are typically fierce competitors have been in unusually strong lockstep on the question of H-1B immigration. They apply for lots of the visas, want the annual supply of 85,000 increased, and have lobbied for changes to the application process that would make it easier for high-skilled workers to stay in the US for good. An H-1B visa holder can generally only stay for six years unless their employer sponsors them to become a permanent US resident, or green card holder.

That was the path taken by Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, who is rarely outspoken on political issues but has been vocal about his personal support for immigration reform. He has argued that both his personal success and the success of his company depended upon the high-skill immigration system.

Tech workers outside the US appear to love H-1Bs, too, despite the system’s limitations. The visas provide a way for ambitious coders to get closer to the epicenter of the global tech industry, or to leverage their skills into a fresh start in the US.

Nearly 70 percent of the 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 into permanent US residency. But because of restrictions on the number of employment-based residency applications granted each year, it can take decades for immigrants from larger countries like India to receive a green card, leaving many people working on an H-1B tied to one employer for years. During that time they are vulnerable to life-disrupting shocks like those facing some immigrants caught up in the recent tech layoffs.

“It reveals the predicament these H-1B workers are put in,” says Faraz Khan, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers labor union. “The rules and regulations under which they work are not advantageous to any worker who is in any type of unfortunate situation.”

Immigrant workers aren’t the only ones losing in this moment. Tech companies have invested decades and millions of dollars into lobbying for kinder rules and an increase in the number of visas available, and in sponsoring hundreds of thousands of workers. Yet the process remains unchanged, and layoffs mean some skilled workers that companies may want to hire from competitors either now or in future will instead leave the country. 

“The challenge is holding on to that talent and being able to really enable the country as a whole to benefit from the creations that they were going to bring forward,” Karan Bhatia, vice president of public affairs and public policy at Google, said in a June 2022 interview. Many Amazon employees with “longstanding” applications for green cards are still waiting, according to an October 2022 post from Beth Galetti, Amazon’s top human resources executive.

The recent layoffs even disadvantage current H-1B workers who escaped the cuts, and those who manage to secure new visas. Immigration law forbids companies from sponsoring a new green card for a foreign worker if they’ve recently laid off a US resident in a similar job, Moore says. That means an immigrant worker who was laid off but lucky enough to get a new H-1B sponsorship could be barred from starting a green card application if their new employer has recently made its own layoffs.

Tech industry groups and some lawmakers argue that the US is already losing talent to competitors overseas because of its failure to reform the system. “We’ve had such major movements toward restricting our already restricted and complicated immigration process, other countries saw that as an opportunity for them to take advantage of to increase high-skilled immigration to their countries to their benefit,” Moore says. The US has declined in the International Institute for Management Development’s world competitiveness ranking over the past several 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 rather than increase 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 domestic worker pool instead of drawing in overseas workers who can reduce pressure to increase wages.

IT consulting firms are among the heaviest users of H-1Bs and pay significantly less than West Coast tech companies. “Employers and employer groups claim that there is this ongoing high-skills labor shortage,” Khan says. “This is driven by narrative and anecdote, and not really by verifiable data.” 

Moore disagrees, pointing to the decline in 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 US.  “We will continue to drop, as other countries are taking advantage of our weaknesses and our inability to act on things like getting our immigration system together,” she says. 

But both sides can agree on one thing: The current system fails workers like those who were swept up in recent tech layoffs and forced to urgently find a new US sponsor or start life over elsewhere.

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