Layoffs mean more than lost wages for H-1B visa holders
Posted on February 3, 2009
For the two out-of-work engineers, it’s a race against time. They’ve lost their Silicon Valley jobs and need to quickly find others at a time when companies everywhere are tightening their belts.
Both are Indians whose advanced degrees were earned at American universities. And both are facing the inflexible rules of their H-1B work visas.
Technically, as soon as they lost their jobs, they were required to leave the country. In reality, they can probably wing it for a week or two, but not much longer.This stark dilemma is being repeated with increasing frequency across Silicon Valley, according to immigration specialists, as companies downsize to weather a punishing downturn. It’s a small number compared with the layoffs of H-1B visa holders during the dot-com crash. But the downturn has sent a wave of concern through the community of immigrant workers who hold the visa, which companies use to hire skilled noncitizens.
Though there is no official tally of visa holders who have been laid off, “It’s happening every day,” said San Jose immigration lawyer Indu Liladhar-Hathi.
“If they don’t have work, they’re in trouble,” said Gabriel Jack, also a San Jose immigration lawyer. “They’ve got to get out” of the country, he said. “That’s the toughest part about being an H-1B.”
The H-1B program was forged in 1990 in a tug-of-war between labor, which has tried to limit its use in favor of American workers, and business, which would like to see it expanded beyond the 65,000 visas currently allowed each year. For American companies it plays at least two roles — as a pool of workers furnished by contracting firms, and as a means of hiring the smaller number of foreign students with advanced degrees from American universities. In technology, H-1B visa holders must have at least a college degree.
A perennially contentious issue, the H-1B visa has drawn fire in recent weeks as layoffs have multiplied. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told Microsoft it should lay off guest workers before “similarly qualified American employees.” Grassley has co-sponsored legislation to give priority in hiring to American workers.
But Silicon Valley companies have long lobbied for a change in the rules that force U.S.-educated foreign students to leave if they can’t quickly find work. Workers brought here by labor contracting firms can remain if they’re not working only as long as the contracting firm continues paying them.
Backlash against visa
“It’s a sad situation because politicians cannot distinguish a guy with skills so badly needed in this country from people whose skills are really not needed,” said Vish Mishra, president of the Silicon Valley networking group The Indus Entrepreneur. “The entire business community has been talking about it, but this is something that Congress can’t come to grips with.”
Mishra says most of those losing jobs have a good shot at landing new ones because of a shortage of technical personnel, even now. But if they have to return home, he advises them to “go back proud rather than going back complaining.”
The backlash against the visa has sparked concern in India. “The H-1B route that brought tens of thousands of Indians to America is facing opposition that may prove terminal for the program,” The Telegraph of India reported last week.
The two out-of-work engineers, Prasad and Jay — who asked that their real names not be used — came here to study, earned advanced technical degrees from top American universities and found jobs after graduating.
Prasad, 28, comes from a business family in Manipur and is the only one of his siblings with a computer science degree. A graduate of the Indian School of Mines, he came here in 2004 for advanced study, first at Stanford and then at MIT, where he earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering.
He landed a job with a Silicon Valley startup, but the downturn claimed his position in December. The company kept him on for two months so he could look for a new one. Now time is running out.
“I just need to find a new job” soon, he said recently. “There’s a distinct possibility that I will have to leave. The downturn has come, companies have frozen hiring, I’m in the wrong company and I got laid off.”
“There’s a lot of panic everywhere,” said the immigration lawyer representing Prasad, Jacob Sapochnick of San Diego. “Everybody’s worried.”
Prasad says he learned he wasn’t alone at a reunion of MIT graduates last week. “I met a whole bunch of people in the same situation,” he said. Last week, things were looking up for him. A major computer company was close to offering him a job.
While Prasad was scouring the valley for work, Jay was probably knocking on a few of the same doors.
Jay, 32, came to Silicon Valley to work in 2005, after obtaining a doctorate from Cornell in electrical engineering. After four years in the valley, his green card was in process, his job seemed secure, and then “… The Crunch.
Laid off this month from the solid-state-device company where he had worked for 20 months, Jay consulted San Jose lawyer Liladhar-Hathi.
“I have a very limited time within which to find work before my status becomes illegal in the United States,” Jay said. “In this kind of market, it’s too short a time within which to land a new job,” he said.
Late last week, he was still looking. There was some interest from a university research group, but nothing concrete. A German company might make him an offer but was still checking its financing to make sure it could afford to hire him. If he is forced to return to India, Jay said, he will try to find work in the valley again someday.
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