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The ongoing layoff waves could sweep thousands of tech workers out of the country, as more than 200,000 temporary foreign worker visas expire

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  • Any young job-hunter faces tough odds in the current sinking economy, as thousands of workers compete for a waning number of open jobs while the bills pile up.
  • But the pressures are much greater for laid-off employees here on foreign worker visas, who have to land a job within a matter of weeks (at most a few months) or else leave the country.  
  • Leaving carries many consequences for foreign laid-off workers: They could be exposed to the deadly coronavirus infection on their flight home, and bring a heavy student debt burden to a country where they may struggle to pay it off. They could even be blocked from re-entering their home countries, thanks to pandemic control measures. 
  • Business groups who say they need these workers are petitioning the government to extend deadlines and legal statuses for visa-holders. So far, the government has advised stranded H-1B holders to petition to file for an extension of status, or a change of status. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The odds are against any young job-hunter right now: Companies are laying off thousands of employees, or at the very least freezing new hires, as the pandemic continues to strangle business activity. With a flood of available workers vying for jobs, any employers still hiring can afford to be choosy. 

Tushar Sharma, a young data engineer based in the Bay Area, can't afford to wait out the coronavirus downturn before landing a new job. And it's not just because of looming rent bills. Sharma holds an F1 student visa, which allows graduates to gain work experience here for up to three years after they finish studying at a US university. But that means they have to keep hold of a job, or leave the country within weeks or at most a few months, depending on their educational backgrounds and US work histories.

Sharma, who completed a masters degree program at Syracuse University last year, was laid off from his job at the digital consulting firm Perficient on April 4. That gives him mere weeks to find a new job and apply for a visa extension, a task that hinges on having a willing employer. Failing that, he will lose his legal status and must return home, sacrificing the rewards of a long-term career plan that brought him to the United States in 2017. 

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers have buoyed a booming US tech industry. Many first arrive to study at US colleges and universities, and then receive authorization to work for 12 months under a "training period'' known as OPT. Students like Sharma who have degrees in STEM-related fields can apply to extend that period by 24 months.

Other foreign workers stay in the United States on a temporary H-1B work visa gained through sponsorship by an employer. But an employer's sponsorship isn't a sure bet to working in the country — Congress caps the number of approved H-1B visas in the country at 65,00 each year, but the applications to join that group are far higher. Because of that, the government runs visas through a lottery system. 

Still others are in the United States because they hold a green card, authorizing them to work in the country on a permanent basis. 

When non-US citizens are working under one of the temporary work authorizations (under an F1 or H-1B visa) they have a limited window of time to remain unemployed — usually between 60 and 90 days. And as layoffs rack up in an economy squeezed by the pandemic, the futures of these workers have never been more uncertain.

At stake: Careers and homes

According to one estimate reported by Bloomberg, around 200,000 foreign workers holding H-1B visas stand to lose their legal status in June. The number rises even higher when it includes OPT-authorized employees like Sharma.

Some have spent thousands of dollars to study in the United States. They rely on a few years of US work experience, obtained through their student visas, to gain an edge before heading back home to a competitive job market. That gamble may not pan out if they remain unemployed for too long, and must return home before they land a new position. 

Others who studied in the United States and later made it through a competitive lottery system to secure an H-1B visa, now see the coronavirus pandemic threatening to rapidly disassemble the lives that they have carefully built up in the United States. Some have bought apartments, and others have started families. 

In the current tight market, a job loss by one member of the family can destabilize another member's career. A laid-off startup employee, who asked to stay unnamed, told Business Insider that his wife hadn't made it through the H-1B lottery system; she was only authorized to work in the United States under a spousal support visa linked to his continued employment. Should he fail to land another job, his wife would also be forced to leave her job.

After spending close to a decade in the United States, he sees the downturn threatening to upend the life that he has so carefully built in Silicon Valley, as he reckons with the growing probability of heading back to Taiwan with his wife and baby daughter.  

A rush to LinkedIn 

In Sharma's case, a series of dead-ends on the job hunt pushed him broadcast his status on LinkedIn. "I tried to bounce back by reaching out to my close network, recruiters and hiring managers for potential opportunities," Sharma wrote. "But I'm having a hard time finding them as most of the companies are going through a hiring freeze." 

Several other foreign workers have also run their outreach through LinkedIn, posting PDF copies of their resumes and stressing the urgency of their situations. 

"I'm currently on H1B that has 60-day unemployment grace period. That doesn't leave a lot of time on my hands," one data scientist from India wrote.

 The posts give voice to the widespread sense of desperation foreign workers feel.

"Like many people around the world, I was laid off due to #COVID19 along with many of my coworkers. In such difficult times with the current hiring freeze and ambiguity, I have a limited timeframe to find a new job due to H1B restrictions," a product manager from Ukraine wrote, adding "it's not the first time I need to show flexibility and resilience in order to handle uncertainty." 

Health regulations and border closures 

A return home during times of recession isn't a new experience for foreign workers. The same pressures hit H-1B workers during the 2008 recession, and even after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

But the coronavirus has generated its own unique pressure points that make it more taxing to go home. Traveling to the airport and sitting through a flight in close proximity to other passengers for hours can be risky while the coronavirus continues to circulate. 

Flight restrictions and border closures further complicate a return home. As the bulk of international travel has been suspended thanks to the coronavirus, only a limited number of repatriation flights are still taking citizens back to their home countries. Countries like India are only now beginning to outline plans to repatriate stranded citizens across the world. India had shut its border down completely for weeks. 

The latest guidance from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services department advises visa-authorized workers who are unable to leave the US because of the coronavirus to file for an extension of status, or a change of status. That might allow them to stay on in the United States temporarily, either as a student or a tourist. 

Calls to extend visa deadlines and statuses

Last month, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) filed a complaint against USCIS, alleging that its regulations were forcing immigration lawyers and their clients toward "violating stay at home orders and exposing themselves" to the coronavirus in order to file extensions, and were thus "needlessly endangering lives."

Other groups have separately advocated and petitioned for a blanket pause on visa deadlines and status. 

To commemorate Ellis Island Day on April 17th, one New York-based fintech startup circulated an open letter that called for the government to extend visa renewal deadlines by 90 days, so workers would not be forced to leave the country while the virus still poses an active threat. Nova Credit's letter quickly gained the support of more than 200 business and tech executives, including Sequoia Capital's Mike Vernal and Andreessen Horowitz's Angela Strange.  

"Extending immigration deadlines and statuses during a time of national emergency prevents very real physical, emotional and operational burdens on our businesses and communities which are already stretched far beyond normal circumstances," Nova Credit's open letter said. 

But as the Trump administration deals with growing pressure to temper the country's surging employment, the prospects of a more tolerant stance towards work-based immigration appears increasingly unlikely.

Less than a week after Nova Credit circulated its open letter, the Trump administration announced that it would be sending out an order to halt immigration for anyone seeking a green card — a pause that would last around 2 months.

The same proclamation ordered a 30-day review to recommend new restrictions on temporary visa-holders, including those benefiting from the H-1B and OPT programs. 

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