It had seemed like a typical workday for Harini. As an analytics engineer at a software startup in San Francisco, she spent her day building reports and dashboards for her colleagues. The first sign that something was off came at 4 p.m., during her weekly Zoom catch-up with her manager. That’s when another participant joined the conversation: the company’s human resources manager.
Harini instinctively knew what was coming. It was a straightforward conversation in which the HR manager told her the company had to let her go. They discussed the logistics of returning her work laptop. Her last day was January 23.
Harini had heard anecdotes about the unsympathetic manner in which her peers at companies like Twitter were laid off — some of them losing access to their work accounts without any warning. She felt her company’s process had at least been a lot more “standard and personal.” But her biggest concern was her visa, which she only had through her (now former) employer.
Harini had called the U.S. home since she had moved here at the age of 18 — right after finishing high school in India — to pursue her undergraduate degree in computer science. She saw the U.S. as the country that had given her independence, growth, a strong circle of friends, and a robust professional network. Would she have to leave?
“It was definitely scary, because [for] anyone on any kind of visa in the U.S., it’s always like hanging by a thread. It’s like, oh, when will this thread cut loose and when are you going to fall?” Harini, who asked to use a pseudonym as she was worried speaking out might impact her job prospects, told Rest of World. “So that’s just the reality of the visa and I felt very scared, anxious, nervous — every possible negative, stressful emotion.”
Harini, who is from the west Indian city of Pune, is one of roughly 600,000 workers hired in the U.S. on an H-1B visa, a “non-immigrant work visa” that allows people in certain professions to stay and work in the country. The visa is linked to their employer; if their employment ends, workers have only 60 days to find a new job to retain their visa status, or leave the country. Indians form the majority of H-1B visa recipients in the U.S. In the 2021 financial year, more than 300,000 Indians had an H-1B petition approved, either for new or continued employment, accounting for almost 75% of the total number of H-1B visas approved that year.
While finding a new tech job in the U.S. is often a scramble, it is particularly difficult now. Following a Silicon Valley hiring boom during the pandemic, a surge of layoffs in recent months has devastated the tech industry. That means many people are fighting for the same positions. According to Layoffs.fyi, a website that has been tracking reported layoffs since the early days of the pandemic, more than 180,000 tech workers have been laid off globally since November. That month, Elon Musk announced that he planned to cut Twitter’s 7,500-person workforce. Some days later, Meta announced 11,000 job cuts. In January, Microsoft said it planned to let go of 10,000 employees. Two days later, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced that it was laying off 12,000.
“The entire industry is shedding jobs and [that] makes it very hard to get rehired within 60 days if your entire industry has gone into recession,” Jonathan Grode, a Philadelphia-based immigration lawyer who works with H-1B visa holders, told Rest of World. “So that’s what’s unique about this one — there’s a lot of people looking and the market is flooded with a lot of individuals who are quite anxious and desperate who all do similar work.”
For Indians on H-1B visas, in particular, there is almost no alternative way to stay on in the U.S. Their estimated wait time for most employment-based green cards — which would allow them to stay in the country for longer — is about 90 years. That’s partly because the number of green cards available through employment — around 140,000 a year — is capped at 7% for each country. The number of Indians on H-1B visas is much higher than the number of employment-based green cards allotted for their nationality, creating a massive backlog. According to Grode, many laid-off H-1B visa holders from other countries may be able simply to transfer to a visitor status and wait for a green card, but that isn’t an option for most Indians.
Rest of World spoke to 10 people on H-1B visas — who had been laid off from companies including Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft, and smaller startups in the past few months — to follow their journeys as they raced against the 60-day countdown.
After losing her job, Harini spent two days feeling sad about her sudden change in fortunes, but realized quickly that she needed to pick herself up. If she wanted to continue living the life she had built in the U.S., she needed to find a new job. “I only have 60 days; I can’t spend 10–12 days just grieving about it,” she said, stoically. “That’s going to lose time on my end.”
The story of the H-1B visa began over three decades ago. In 1990, U.S. President George H. W. Bush revised immigration laws, birthing the H-1A and H-1B visas through the Immigration Act of 1990. The H-1A visa, which does not exist anymore, was for nurses. The H-1B visa was defined as a “non-immigrant” visa category “for employment-based immigrants,” in particular those with “extraordinary ability” and “advanced degrees.”
Calling it the “most comprehensive reform” of the immigration laws in 66 years, Bush said at the time that this bill “credits the special role of immigrants to America” and “will promote a more competitive economy.”
The H-1B visa is initially valid for three years and can then be extended for another three years. If the company files for a green card for the employee, they can renew their H-1B visa any number of times until they receive their green card.
During most of the 1990s, the cap on new H-1B visas was set at 65,000, but applications never reached that number. “The H-1B visa program historically was never over-subscribed,” said Grode. “Things began to change with the dot-com boom in the late 90s and the early 2000s.”
During that time, the cap was briefly increased to 195,000 to accommodate more STEM graduates. But in 2006, it was pulled back to 85,000, which included 20,000 visas reserved for applicants with a graduate degree from the U.S. The cap on H-1B visas remains at this number today, with exceptions made for some nationalities and employees in certain U.S. territories. Successful applicants are selected randomly via a lottery, which adds a layer of luck to an already laborious and expensive process.
H-1B holders started coming to the U.S. from countries like India and China, among others, plugging technical skill gaps in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The H-1B visa quickly became a popular avenue for Indian outsourcing giants such as Infosys, Wipro, and Tata Consultancy Services to fly out employees to work on client locations in the U.S. It was also used by American tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Meta, to hire top talent. For the past three years, Amazon has had more new H-1B visas approved for its workers than any other company; last year, it had almost 6,400 approved. Top tech executives like Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella were also on H-1B visas at one point.
In India, visas and the H-1B lottery are common topics of dinner-table conversation for students in science and tech programs. The H-1B visa is seen as a gateway to the American dream — a successful application means the entire family rejoices and offers prayers in gratitude. Some of these prayers might even be made at the 500-year-old Chilkur Balaji temple on the outskirts of Hyderabad in south India. This temple, known locally as the “Visa Balaji temple,” has become a go-to spot for H-1B hopefuls and other visa aspirants. It gained its reputation in the 1980s after some students, whose visas had been rejected, prayed there and subsequently had their visas granted. At least 75,000 people now visit weekly with visa-related prayers, and a promise to visit again once their wish is fulfilled.
Attitudes to the H-1B visa in the U.S. have shifted with political tides. The Trump administration clamped down on the H-1B visa in multiple ways, including passing an executive order aimed at reforming the program, increasing denial rates for H-1B petitions, and announcing plans to increase the minimum wage requirement for H-1B visa holders. But, between October 2020 and September 2021, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved more than 400,000 H-1B visas, the highest number in a decade. (This figure includes visa renewals and transfers as well as first-time visas, plus H-1B visas issued under categories exempt from the overall cap, such as government jobs.)
Sagar Bonde got his H-1B visa in 2021. After running an electronics startup for four years in Mumbai, Bonde decided to pursue a master’s degree in computer software engineering at San José State University in 2019.
“I always wanted to come to Silicon Valley,” Bonde told Rest of World over a call from his apartment in San Jose. He attended classes, mostly online, during the pandemic, and bagged his first job as a software engineer at Twitter in April 2021. With an H-1B visa sponsored by the company, Bonde joined its platform security team. He spent his time building web security infrastructure services and working on Twitter’s developer platform. “Every single day, I could tell myself, ‘This is the job I always wanted to do,’” said Bonde. “It was sort of a dream job and what [is] better than that as your first job in the United States.”
In 2022, murmurs of Elon Musk buying Twitter started to spread among the company’s employees. Bonde remembers managers reassuring staff that the change in leadership would not impact their immediate future. When Musk bought Twitter and started making layoffs, Bonde was caught off guard.
Bonde was among the first batch of 3,700 people laid off from Twitter on November 4. He was shocked, because he believed he was doing some of his best work at Twitter. “I was trying to do a lot of challenging work in the last six months and that involved a lot of design, talking to many stakeholders, so much of going out of [my] comfort zone,” he recalled. So when it happened, “I was in disbelief for the first few weeks. And the dilemma was much more about, did I miss something? Did I do something wrong?”
Being laid off from Twitter was a “heartbreak,” he said, because “it was exactly this experience I came to the United States for.” But, like Harini, Bonde knew he didn’t have the luxury to grieve. He spent a week preparing and reviewing engineering concepts for interviews, and then started applying for jobs as if on autopilot for the next five weeks. “I gave [a total of] 120 interviews with some 30 companies,” he said. “And it’s not just that; it’s also about completing all the formalities and filing the H-1B. And then there are holidays, too.” Getting a job within 60 days was particularly difficult because of the U.S. holiday season, with Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner. He eventually secured a new role, and a transfer for his H-1B was filed on December 27 — 53 days into his search.
Another Indian engineer who was laid off from Twitter, Debpriya Seal, described a similarly aggressive job search. For a month after being laid off in November 2022, Seal maintained a routine: Wake up, grab a cup of coffee, sit at his desk by 9 a.m., and apply for jobs until 6 p.m. He told Rest of World he applied to more than 50 companies. “I would apply to five companies [each day],” he said. “It was to a point [where] I was applying to the same company over and over again, so I started maintaining a spreadsheet.” His days would end with checking his email for responses, hoping to get invited for interviews. Then he’d wake up the next day to rinse and repeat the same process.
Sometimes, companies would take down the job posting while he was still going through the interview process, indicating they had hired someone else. He would then strike that name off his spreadsheet.
Seal, who had worked at Twitter for six years, said the sudden layoff led to some unexpected hurdles. For an engineer, each role requires six to seven rounds of interviews, he said. “Interviewing itself is a separate skill set, [requires] a separate muscle memory. There is something called LeetCode [a programming platform], which you have to prepare. And the kind of questions you have on LeetCode is not something you do on a day-to-day basis.”
Balancing preparation and timeliness is critical — if you apply too soon and are underprepared, you may not get the job; if you prepare for too long, the 60-day visa grace period may not leave you with enough time. “Given the timeline, you will never be at your 100%. So you just make that call and give your best,” added Seal.
In December, he got a job offer from financial software company Intuit. Exactly 59 days after learning he would be laid off from Twitter, Seal received confirmation of the receipt of his H-1B visa transfer. He said it was his conviction that helped him get through this phase. “I was pretty confident that if there is one opening, I should be able to get [it]; that much faith I had in myself — and you have to, if you’re staying outside of your home country,” he said. “I did not plan for a backup option. Obviously, if I didn’t get anything, then [I’d be] forced to leave the country and keep on applying from India. But somehow, I believed I would be able to [get a job].”
For many people on H-1B visas, being laid off can jeopardize their entire lives, and those of their families: where they live, where they can travel, where they build their futures.
When news broke on November 14 that Amazon was planning to cut 10,000 jobs, Shweta Maheshwari, 32, was busy thinking about her sister-in-law’s upcoming wedding in India. Maheshwari, a software development engineer at Amazon in Seattle since 2020, did a quick analysis of her work performance, and felt fairly confident that she’d be okay if the layoffs were performance-based. But her optimism was short-lived. She received an online invite asking her to join a meeting with her manager in two minutes. “The moment I saw the HR, I knew. Then the manager came in, and [said] your role has been eliminated [and that] it has nothing to do with your performance,” recalled Maheshwari. “I didn’t even know what to ask. When I saw the news that morning, I didn’t think people would be laid off the same day.”
Maheshwari retained access to her work laptop and the Amazon office for another month but she wasn’t allowed to attend any meetings or access documents. Her biggest concern at the time was whether she had disappointed her family back home.
“I started thinking: What if I had to go to India tomorrow? What do I tell my parents? They’re going to get worried about me,” she said. “Maybe I’ll just stay here, find a job and then tell them that layoff happened, and now I have a new job. So that was the most stressful.” She was also worried about her sister-in-law’s wedding. This was partly because until she found a new role, she wasn’t comfortable leaving the country — she was worried she would not be let back into the U.S. if she was unemployed.
Maheshwari had been living in the U.S. since 2013, and had worked at multiple tech companies, such as Expedia and Intel. She knew how to go about a job search. So, after “two hours of fear, one day of sobbing, and three weeks of job-hunting,” she had her first job offer. For Maheshwari, this meant more than just a job — it ensured she was able to go back to India and be part of the wedding celebrations. “This was really important to me,” said Maheshwari. “My wedding couldn’t happen in India because of Covid[-19], and I really wanted to be there for her wedding because of my connection with her and [also because] I was an integral part of the entire wedding planning.”
Since landing a new gig, she has also been helping others find jobs. “My situation was better, but there are people with families, mortgages, and student loans,” she said. A friend in Chicago, who was also recently laid off, has been struggling to find a job while trying to pay off his mortgage, she said. Moreover, this job loss has also made his wife vulnerable — she is on a dependent visa, tied to his H-1B.
The layoffs are partly a result of tech companies having overhired during the pandemic. Amazon hired more than half a million people, doubling its workforce from September 2019 to September 2022. Meta also nearly doubled its head count between March 2020 and September 2022. Microsoft, Google, Snap, and Salesforce also hired thousands of workers during this time. Now, on the heels of economic uncertainty and slowing consumer demand, they are turning bearish about their future growth and trimming their workforce.
“A lot of the layoffs here are simply because the tech industry got drunk on its success during the pandemic, it was really bad management, so they overhired, they overspent and now, basically, they’re correcting that,” Vivek Wadhwa, a Silicon Valley-based academic and author, told Rest of World. “But the people who are impacted are the H-1Bs, because they assume that they had lifelong employment at these companies.”
Anjali Mann, an H-1B visa holder based in Washington state, was told in January that she was being laid off from Microsoft. She had worked as a product engineer at the company for three years. “It was a shock, because I’ve been working very hard and I was recently promoted as well,” Mann told Rest of World. “For H-1B folks, your whole existence in this country is questioned — you have to be smart and find a way to stay afloat. I don’t want to be one of those who drowns in this and heads back to their home country.”
Mann said she is being kept on the payroll for two months — this means the clock on her 60-day grace period starts from March 19, giving her almost double the time to find a job. She said she is not ready to leave the U.S. — her home, her karmabhoomi (the land where one works) — and has applied online to at least 300 companies in the past month.
The additional notice period given to Mann is a result of the WARN Act, which requires companies to give employees 60 days’ notice in the case of mass layoffs. But, for H-1B visa holders, this depends on how they are labeled in the employer’s system, said immigration lawyer Grode. Depending on the details of their situation, they may or may not benefit from the extra notice.
Seal and Maheshwari were also given notice under the WARN Act. Seal said that due to this ambiguity, he searched for a new role assuming he only had 60 days. According to multiple people laid off since January, those who had lost their jobs in an earlier wave — in October and November 2022 — had had an easier time finding a new position. The reason, they told Rest of World, is that now, there are more candidates on the job market competing for the available roles.
And it’s not only those already on H-1B visas who are feeling the pinch. People entering the workforce are also competing for the same jobs. Vaibhav Tapadiya, who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science from Wichita State University, will graduate this summer. But his excitement about completing the program has been eclipsed by the stress of finding a job in the current climate. He told Rest of World he had applied for at least 1,600 jobs since October, and had only heard back from three companies.
“Due to the layoffs going on, it’s been very tough for international students specifically to get the job,” Tapadiya said. His biggest concern is the student debt that has accumulated from the loan he took in India to pursue his degree. On an Indian salary, he would struggle to pay it back.
In the wake of the layoffs, many H-1B visa holders have come together as an ad hoc community — a support group of sorts. One popular forum is a Facebook group called SOS Global Indians, set up by marketing and media professional Michael Khanna.
Khanna started the group in early 2020, when he found himself and one of his parents stranded in Texas due to the Covid-19 lockdowns, with no way to get back home to India.
Three years on, SOS Global Indians has 250,000 members. It has helped Indians stranded in different countries during Covid-19, as well as those who were in Ukraine when the Russian invasion began. Lately, it’s become a go-to platform for Indians affected by the tech layoffs. Conversations around jobs used to account for 10% of the chats in the group, according to Khanna. Now, they make up over 40% of the interactions.
“The queries are simply about finding an alternative job,” Khanna told Rest of World. “So a request for referrals within an existing organization, or questions about ‘what do I do in this kind of a scenario where I’m trying to transition from one job to another job?’ because of the layoff situation.” People also post to ask about alternative visa categories they may be eligible for, he said. Khanna has taken up the cause and filed a petition with the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, asking them to find a way to hire Indians who have been laid off and are returning home.
Some Indians on H-1B visas are exploring alternative visa arrangements. Saiman Shetty, from the south Indian city of Udupi, moved to the U.S. in 2013. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, and went on to work at companies including Tesla and Lyft. But the H-1B visa became an issue. “Despite working at some of the top companies in Silicon Valley — like, world-leading companies — my H-1B was not getting picked in the lottery,” Shetty told Rest of World.
He ended up applying for an EB-1A green card instead, given to people considered “extraordinary” in their field. Getting this green card can be a challenge, however; he recalled sleeping an average of no more than three hours a night during 2017 as he built up his work experience.
Shetty said at least 3,000 people have reached out to him in the last few months, looking into the idea of switching to an EB-1A green card. Many have not yet been laid off, but are concerned by the current climate and want greater security. “Every time I open my LinkedIn, there are at least 10 such messages,” he said. “And this is aside from the leads I get from my website.”
For many tech workers, the current downturn has exposed the precarious nature of life on an H-1B visa. Harini, the laid-off analytics engineer, has been exploring alternative paths to the H-1B alongside job-hunting. “I’m just trying to find people to talk to on that, especially because [with] our visas, everything is so restrictive — and the other thing is that there are so many other options for visas that are very, very under-explored,” she said. “I do not want to wait for a green card for 25 years; that just seems ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Harini’s 60-day grace period expires at the end of March. She is currently going on interviews, and waiting to hear back from one company where she made it to the final round. She is determined to make something work. Even if she doesn’t stay in the U.S. for the long term, Harini said she wants to make sure she leaves the country on her own terms.