When one data scientist started working at Meta, he felt like he had finally made it. Under the umbrella of a tech giant, not only would he have job security, he thought, but visa security as well. Originally from China, he needed the sponsorship of an H-1B work visa to stay in the U.S.
A year went by in his new role and everything seemed to be going well. But last week, it all came crashing down when he got an email saying that he was one of 11,000 employees being laid off by Meta. Now, with Twitter also laying off thousands, he and many other former employees have 60 days after the date of their official termination to find another job to sponsor their visas, or they will have to leave the country and start the process anew, according to U.S. immigration law.
The uncertainty exposes the disarray at the heart of U.S. immigration policy for the tech industry, and these layoffs have the potential to turn tech-specialized immigrants off from coming to the U.S. for work, experts say.
“Layoffs do put extra pressure on visa holders because there’s only a limited amount of time for us to find new jobs,” the ex-employee told NBC News. “It’s tough.”
“Layoffs do put extra pressure on visa holders because there’s only a limited amount of time for us to find new jobs. It’s tough.”
Mass layoffs have put thousands of tech workers back on the job market in the span of a week, many of them immigrants who relied on their companies to sponsor their visas. In the scramble to compete with their U.S.-born peers for jobs, a deadline now looms over them.
“U.S. immigration policy has amplified the uncertainty for immigrant workers in times like this. A lot of tech workers will have to pack up their lives and leave,” said Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, whose research concentrates on high-skill immigration. “That means workers are less likely to choose the U.S. as a destination for working in the tech sector.”
Twitter did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment, and Meta declined to comment.
A looming deadline leaves employees scrambling
In a message to employees announcing the cuts, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said there would be a “grace period” for visa-holding employees.
“I know this is especially difficult if you’re here on a visa,” he wrote. “There’s a notice period before termination and some visa grace periods, which means everyone will have time to make plans and work through their immigration status.”
“Workers are less likely to choose the U.S. as a destination for working in the tech sector.”
He noted the company would also provide employees with specialized immigration support if they needed it and recommended that employees get outside legal advice.
But the former Meta data scientist, who long wanted to work in big tech, said that after getting that email, he didn’t feel the instruction was sufficient. “Meta was not super clear about the whole immigration stuff,” he said. He was confused about the potential differences between the date he was sent the notice and the date of his termination, which would affect the timeline for his visa.
He said it wasn’t until he spoke to his friends and immigration lawyers that he understood that his official termination date would be Jan. 13. The layoff notice he received last week was his grace period, allowing him extra time before the official 60 days kicks in.
According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Register, which established this rule, the 60 days begins at the “cessation of employment.” Policy experts interpret this to mean the last day on the job, though the former Meta employee says there’s still a lack of clarity about what that means for former employees’ respective visas.
“It’s definitely harder trying to find a job or trying to find a company that’s willing to sponsor you. I don’t know how hard it’s going to be,” the former Meta employee said. He recalls having a difficult time finding companies at a career fair who sponsored work visas.
He said finding a job that could both sponsor his visa and provide career security was difficult and a major reason he joined the company. He felt secure in his position because Meta was a large company, and while Zuckerberg put out statements sharing the financial reality the company faced, there was a sense of positivity on his team.
“We were like, ‘I think our product should be fine,’” he said. “So we were like, ‘Maybe some people might go, but probably not us.’ We were so optimistic.”
Potential harms to the U.S. tech sector and its reputation abroad
The instability has been happening for some time now, Khanna said, and it has the potential to harm an industry that was largely built on immigrant work. From the beginning of the tech boom in the 1990s to 2007, the percentage of immigrants in the tech industry climbed from 9% to 25%, according to Khanna.
“We were like, ‘I think our product should be fine.’ So we were like, ‘Maybe some people might go, but probably not us.’ We were so optimistic.”
Indian nationals make up 74.5% of all H-1B petitioners, the largest group by far according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The next is mainland Chinese nationals, who make up 11.8%.
“This really helped drive the tech boom in the U.S. and made the U.S. the big tech hub,” Khanna said. “It unleashed an innovation boom that had big impacts for not just the tech sector, but the entire economy.”
Like any other industry, the tech sector has always ebbed and flowed. The ‘90s tech boom was followed by the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, and Khanna says the industry is entering a similar period now with the mass layoffs. Immigrants in tech are well aware of these cycles, he said, and running parallel is a worsening climate for visa and green card seekers.
As of March, the wait time for Indian nationals seeking a green card goes up to 96 years, said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, who analyzed data from immigration services. Covid exacerbated an already decadeslong backlog, and depending on the type of company applying for their permanent residency, Indian immigrants working in tech might have to remain on a visa for years.
“We’re not really helping ourselves by making it so hard for talented people to come and stay in the United States,” Gelatt said.
And H-1Bs, or highly skilled worker visas, have a backlog of their own. Even if a person finds a company willing to sponsor them, losing their job for any reason can put their stay in the country at risk.
The former Meta employee, who previously worked as a senior data analyst at a bank, said he believed others considering jumping from jobs in different industries might not want to transition to tech amid instability in the industry.
He said if he knew he would be laid off a year after joining the company, he would’ve stayed at his previous job.
“If I knew this would happen … there’s no time machine, though,” he said.
Getting more time in the country to figure out living situations, for example, comes with more complications.
“We’re not really helping ourselves by making it so hard for talented people to come and stay in the United States."
“For certain visas, you actually need to leave the country and then get the visa and come back into the country,” Khanna said. “So essentially, what workers may try to do is leave the country, go to a U.S. Embassy, try to get a visitor visa, and come back in and then in those 90 days, try to wrap up their homes.”
The thousands of new talents on the market will exacerbate the problem of finding a job in the tech sector, he said, and other countries hoping to beef up their own industries are trying to take advantage.
“Other countries are basically seeing the disarray that the U.S. is in and are capitalizing on the situation,” he said. “For instance, Canada is saying, ‘We’re going to expand our immigrant workforce. … We want to kind of take the tech industry away from the U.S. and establish it in Canada. We want Canada to be the next Tech Hub.’”
While experts can’t be sure if a mass exodus of immigrants from U.S. tech is in the cards, a large loss of foreign talent could devastate not only Silicon Valley, but all the industries that depend on its innovations, Khanna said.
But in Gelatt’s perspective, the U.S. still has a unique draw that won’t soon fade. Families coming overseas for their loved ones might have a hard time detaching from this country, she said, and many in tech still see it as the place where they can find the most success.
“We’ve seen people come in on H-1B visas and then eventually start their own businesses and be wildly successful,” she said. “I think that dream stays alive, too.”
The ex-Meta employee said that, despite the challenges, he’s hopeful he’ll find a new position in the U.S. soon and grateful he’s had the opportunity to create networks here. “My plan is to still stay here, because they’re much more job opportunities for me to grow and to learn versus going back,” he said.