Since Microsoft brought him to the United States 14 years ago, Abhishikt Jain has excelled professionally, raised a family and settled into a four-bedroom house with a garage “full of unnecessary stuff,” he said.
“You could say I achieved the American dream,” said the software engineer, now 43, who is from India and lives in Bellevue, Wash.
But in October, Mr. Jain fell victim to layoffs battering the tech industry, and suddenly his family’s future was thrust into uncertainty. On the cusp of securing permanent U.S. residency after a 12-year-wait, Mr. Jain instead faced the prospect of packing up and leaving the United States unless he quickly found another job or finally received his green card.
After years of galloping growth, the U.S. tech sector has slammed on the brakes amid rising inflation and worries about a recession. A hiring bonanza has given way to drastic head count reductions to slash costs.
Getting sacked during the holiday season is a blow to any worker. But for foreigners on temporary work visas, the challenges go far beyond managing without paychecks. They must find jobs within 60 days at another company willing to sponsor them for a visa, or they must leave the country. And many stand to lose their shot at U.S. permanent residency after spending years in a green-card backlog.
So far this year, more than 146,000 tech workers have been laid off, according to Layoffs.fyi, which tracks them, including 51,000 in November alone. A substantial share of those terminated were foreigners, even though employers have not disclosed how many workers on temporary visas have been let go
The cutbacks have sent anxious foreign workers scrambling to find new jobs, and, as the clock ticks, looking for possible workarounds, such as transferring to temporary visitor status to buy a little more time to job hunt.
“The magnitude of the layoffs is of the likes I have never seen before. There is chaos and confusion,” said Tahmina Watson, an immigration lawyer in Seattle who has been barraged with queries from laid-off foreign workers.
“Not only are tech companies laying people off in unprecedented numbers, but they are also implementing hiring freezes,” she said, “and thus, there are likely few alternative jobs for immigrant workers.”
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Mr. Jain, who lost his job at Microsoft in October, is among tens of thousands of Indian engineers who for years have been creating software at information technology companies like Cisco, social-media platforms like Meta and online retailers like Amazon. Because of their crucial role, and a dearth of American STEM graduates, many foreign workers are being sponsored by their employers for U.S. permanent residency.
While parked in the backlog waiting for approval, the immigrants have built lives in the United States: They have had American children, taken out mortgages and become rooted in their communities.
Most are on high-skilled worker visas known as H-1Bs. More than 500,000 people, are in the United States under the visas, the largest number hailing from India, followed by China, with the majority in science and technology fields.
Demand for such talent has soared as the U.S. economy has become increasingly reliant on technology. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of tech workers in the United States jumped by 44 percent, to 10.8 million from 7.5 million. For their programming, coding and other skills, many receive six-figure salaries.
As of 2019, foreign-born workers made up almost a quarter of all STEM workers in the country, up from about 16 percent in the year 2000, according to an analysis of census data by the American Immigration Council.
The visa holders are concentrated in California, home to Twitter, Meta and Apple, and in Washington state, home to Amazon, Microsoft, Zillow and Expedia. But they are also in states like Arkansas, toiling at the headquarters of Tyson, the poultry processor, to improve production efficiencies, and at Walmart, to design systems for self-checkouts.
This year, U.S. employers filed more than 480,000 petitions for the 85,000 H-1B visas available, and as in previous years, the government turned to a lottery to allocate them because of the large volume of applications.
But recent layoffs in the tech industry have abruptly upended the lives of workers already here.
After completing his acquisition of Twitter, Elon Musk slashed half the staff, or 3,700 employees, leaving many foreign workers on visas in urgent need of new employment.
“I am on an H-1B visa and have only 60 days to start a new job,” Yiwei Zhuang, a Chinese software engineer, wrote on LinkedIn.
After losing her job at Twitter, Sujatha Krishnaswamy, an Indian national, took to the platform to voice her angst at her precarious situation.
This year, while pregnant, “I worked day and night to successfully deliver a critical user-facing privacy feature to meet Twitter’s regulatory obligations,” she wrote. “I gave my heart and soul every day to meet Twitter’s Security and Privacy promises to users and regulators.”
Her H-1B status, she noted, was “exacerbating my situation.”
(Reached by phone recently, Ms. Krishnaswamy declined to answer any questions, saying she was focused on her job search.)
If H-1B workers and their families return to their country of origin after being laid off, their employer is obligated to pay for their airfare home.
To stay in the United States, they must find a company willing to shoulder the costs of renewing their H-1B visa, and to pay fees associated with their green card applications, if they are in process, which are employment-based.
“A new employer has to agree to spend up to $20,000 extra for an H-1B worker,” said Jonathan Grode, a lawyer in Philadelphia who specializes in employment-based immigration.
“It makes you less attractive for an employer” than workers who are U.S. citizens or green-card holders, who also may have been laid off and are looking for work, he said. “That’s the conundrum.”
An informal database set up by two Indian tech workers on LinkedIn to help fellow H-1B visa holders find jobs has attracted more than 500 people, who have shared their information with hopes of being connected to prospective employers.
“We expected 40 to 50 people. But as soon as we created the database, it exploded,” said Shruti Anand, who launched the effort last month with a friend, Vidhi Agrawal.
The women quickly realized that the reach of the layoffs extended beyond the software industry. “It’s all over, anywhere that tech touches,” said Ms. Anand, “people in health care, food industry are losing their jobs.”
After introducing hiring freezes, many companies have moved to shrink their staffs as they brace for the impact of supply-chain issues, as well as rising interest rates and costs on their bottom lines.
Layoffs have occurred steadily at tech titans and midsize firms but also at smaller companies and start-ups.
Many companies that boomed during the coronavirus pandemic, such as Amazon, DoorDash and Netflix, have seen lower demand as consumer behavior returns to pre-pandemic patterns.
After The Times reported that Amazon planned to lay off 10,000 workers, its chief executive, Andy Jassy, confirmed in a message to employees last month that the job cuts were happening, but he did not specify how many. Computerworld reported last week that 20,000 workers could get pink slips in coming months.
Last month, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Meta, the parent of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, was laying off more than 11,000 employees to reduce its work force by 13 percent, and the company extended a hiring freeze through the first quarter of next year.
Some employers have offered generous severance packages. DoorDash, for example, which announced on Nov. 30 that it was laying off about 1,250 workers, has set the termination date of workers for March 1, to give people on visas more time to find a new job if they choose to remain in the United States.
Back in Washington state, Microsoft gave Mr. Jain severance that provides him a cushion, and he took pains to emphasize that the company had been a good employer for 17 years, three of them while he worked in India.
Yet even with his deep experience, finding a new job has been challenging, he said, because the wave of layoffs coupled with hiring freezes has created stiff competition.
This week he won a major reprieve: After more than a decade of waiting, his green card suddenly arrived in the mail. His ability to live in the United States no longer depended on his employment.
“Now the stress is much less,” said Mr. Jain, who is married and has two sons. “I just have to find a job.”