Visa rules once worked in favor of H-1B workers by guaranteeing decent pay and job security. But now they are working against the visa holders.
With the U.S. economy in a tailspin, as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, hundreds of thousands of H-1B visa holders, a majority of whom are Indian nationals, now have a giant question mark looming over their heads. They live in constant fear of losing their jobs and being forced to leave the country due to the distinct stipulations in the visa rules.
These regulations once worked in favor of H-1B visa workers — they guaranteed decent pay and job security. But now they are working against the visa holders. Because they can’t be fired or be paid less than the amount promised in their H-1B petitions, it becomes easier for employers to terminate their employment entirely.
More than 37 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past two months. Millions more are living in constant fear that they, too, may find themselves in a similar situation. But for H-1B visa workers, they have the added fear of the threat of going back to their home country, leaving everything behind, and with the ongoing pandemic it has been increasingly difficult for H-1B visa workers to find new work.
Mohammad Awan (name changed at request), an H-1B visa holder in the U.S. and a consultant at a government facility, said the threat of losing his job and being forced out of the country is always on the back of his mind. “There’s a constant feeling of uneasiness. Right now I am luckier than most, in the sense that I have my job, it’s just that when will the situation change? I don’t know,” said Awan.
He said being an H-1B worker is especially hard right now because he isn’t being offered the same employment benefits as American citizens.
This is because, unlike H-1B workers, a typical American employee can get furloughed, their workload can get reduced, or they can work from home. As of right now, even working from home is difficult for H-1B workers, as there are a number of legal loopholes they need to jump through in order to even do the same.
It is not clear exactly how many H-1B visa holders have lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic because a lot of that data comes from unemployment claims filed with the government and H-1B visa holders are not entitled to unemployment benefits.
Matthew Kolken, a Buffalo immigration attorney, says that when considering the 65,000 H-1B visas awarded each year and the massive economic plummet the country is facing, it’s possible that thousands of them have already been laid off. “You would think that with the layoffs that are going on in these big corporations, I would say at least a third of them [H-1B visa holders], so it’s got to be in the tens of thousands,” said Kolken.
Many of these foreign workers live in constant anxiety, wondering whether their job will become next on the unessential list. The USCIS has not done much to offer a sigh of relief either as there has been no news of a grace period extension as of yet. Many of these H-1B workers are left wondering what to do next, as a result.
The uncertainties don’t necessarily end there, however.
H-1B visa holders can only worry about the future of immigration as whole, after considering everything included: the difficulty of obtaining an H-1B visa in the first place, the hostility many of these workers have faced over the stigma around immigrant workers “stealing American jobs,” and an administration that has been less than friendly toward H-1B visa workers and immigration in general.
On April 22, 2020, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation banning the entry of certain Green Card holders. Initially, H-1B was left out of the proclamation, thanks to the lobbying of the American IT industry, according to a New York Times report.
However, critics of H-1B have pushed for the president to include the program in his proclamation. Most notably, four US senators wrote a letter to Trump on May 7, 2020, urging him to “suspend all new guest worker visas for sixty days, and to suspend certain categories of new guest worker visas for at least the next year,” in light of historic unemployment numbers.
Their proposal includes not only the suspension of the H-1B visa program, but the H-2B (non-agricultural seasonal workers), Optional Practical Training (OPT) (allows international students to work after graduation), and the EB-5 (allows foreigners to invest in American projects) immigrant visa programs as well.
It is unclear whether or not the senators’ letter will cause the president to make a decision that will immediately affect the fate of H-1B in this country. However, it is worth noting that Trump made this statement in 2016: “I will end forever the use of H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
In terms of what this might mean for immigration as a whole, Awan believes that despite the treatment H-1B visa holders and immigrants in general face, it will be America that ultimately loses in the long run, if the program is curtailed.
“America will become a bad place to migrate to. People will think ‘why go there.’ You have to jump through hoops, wait 10-15 years, to maybe, if you’re lucky get a greencard, then maybe if you’re lucky get your citizenship. You go through a lot of heartbreak and grey hair-inducing tension. Why do that?” said Awan. “[America will] become less desirable.”
Sheela Murthy, a prominent immigration attorney and founder of Murthy Law Firm, based in suburban Maryland, who also specializes in H-1B cases, shared a similar sentiment. Murthy believes that we, as a country, need H-1B workers. “If America is not going to open their arms and welcome them then they are going to work from different parts of the world enriching and helping those countries,” she said.