For Anjali, it came down to the wire. Just two days before she and her husband would have been required by law to leave the United States, she landed a new job.
Anjali is a 36-year-old software engineer from India living in Lowell. She’s one of thousands of foreign-born workers who came to the United States via the H-1B visa program, which lets US companies hire well-educated workers from other countries. She asked that her real name not be used to preserve her privacy.
Many of those visa holders who were laid off in the recent technology industry downdraft are in a kind of limbo, desperately searching for work because US law requires them to hold down a job to stay in the country. After a layoff, a worker has just 60 days to find another employer and complete the transfer of the visa to the new employer.
“Literally, I got approval yesterday,” Anjali said just before the March 22 deadline to have the transfer completed, “and if nothing had happened by today, we’d have had to leave tomorrow.”
Anjali’s story, and those of two other Indian nationals who spoke on condition of anonymity, reveal that despite layoffs roiling the technology sector, demand for those workers remains robust.
Critics of the H-1B program say companies use it to avoid paying fair wages to US workers. By law, companies must pay H-1b visa workers no less than the prevailing wage for such work, as calculated by the US Department of Labor. According to H1B Grader, which tracks US wage data, all three foreign workers who spoke to the Globe are being paid at or above the prevailing wage for their specialties. And two of the three landed new jobs that pay significantly more than their previous employers.
On the other hand, Anjali said that as a principal software engineer with 17 years experience she should be earning significantly more than the $150,000 her new job pays. She’s got a point. According to the job website ZipRecruiter, similar workers in Massachusetts can expect to earn about $182,000.
“I had to settle for whatever they offered me because of so many people looking for jobs at the same time,” Anjali said.
To be eligible for an H-1B, a foreign worker must have specialized skills, and usually a college degree. While H-1B visas have been awarded to chefs and fashion models, they’re mainly sought by companies looking for workers with scientific and technical skills. The United States issues 85,000 of these visas each year. An employer, not a worker, applies for the visa, which remains valid for up to six years, as long as the worker remains employed. Workers who are laid off can seek other US employers willing to sponsor them.
Tech companies eliminated more than 161,000 jobs in the United States last year, according to the website Layoffs.fyi, and have already cut 153,000 jobs in 2023.
Still, companies are requesting H-1B visas. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services has not yet released data on the number submitted during the registration period that ended March 20. But the number of requests has soared in recent years, from about 200,000 in 2020 to 484,000 last year. Successful applicants for the 85,000 visas were selected in late March.
Boston-based immigration attorney Matthew Maiona said demand for the visas at his office seems as brisk as ever. “For us, it’s pretty steady from previous years,” he said.
There’s also lots of demand for laid-off workers who already have visas. Anjali, for example, got offers from a global manufacturing company and a major financial services firm. Her biggest worry was completing the paperwork in time. A new employer must submit a lengthy application to the Department of Labor attesting it will provide fair pay and safe working conditions. Also, the visa holder must submit documents to USCIS, including pay stubs, tax records, resume, and university transcripts. The entire process can take weeks.
For Anjali, there was another looming crisis. Her husband, who works in the computer industry, is also protected by her visa. If it ran out, both would lose their jobs and be forced to return to India.
So when two different companies offered her jobs, Anjali accepted both. That boosted her odds, but it meant one of the two companies would go through the costly hiring process for nothing.
“I was talking to my therapist because of it,” Anjali said. “I’m lying to somebody, and I don’t even know who is the person I’m lying to. You know? It’s very tough.”
For Kiran, on the other hand, there was no way to avoid returning to India.
The 28-year-old holds a master’s degree in computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, and a master’s in computer science from Georgia Tech. Until recently, he lived in Framingham with his wife, a Chinese national working as a university researcher under an H-1B visa of her own. But then Kiran was laid off from a biotech company two days before Christmas.
“I found a new job in about 45, 50 days,” he said. “But then I had to leave the country” because of the 60-day cutoff.
Kiran could have stayed by getting a visa intended for the spouses of H-1B workers, but he couldn’t have held a job. And overstaying his own visa would carry severe penalties. If he lingered six months, then flew to his native India for a visit, he wouldn’t be allowed back into the United States for three years — or 10 years if he overstayed by 12 months.
The problem with the new job was the paperwork. Even though his new employer paid an extra $2,500 fee for expedited processing, he couldn’t beat the strict visa deadline. So Kiran flew home, leaving his wife behind.
His H-1B transfer process has since been completed, and he can soon return to the United States and work as a senior machine-learning engineer for a company in Cambridge. “I kind of lucked out,” he said.
In more ways than one. Kiran’s previous job as a software engineer paid $115,000. His new salary is $240,000.
A third Indian worker, Maryam, had the easiest time of it. The 38-year-old Newton resident has an MBA from Northwestern University. Last autumn, Maryam became dissatisfied with her job at a real estate tech company. She’d already lined up several job interviews by the time she was dismissed in January, and an offer came quickly.
“I would have quit if I hadn’t been laid off,” Maryam said.
Her new job features the same title — strategy and operations manager — but at higher pay: $145,00 compared to $130,000 in her previous job.
Even if she’d blown through the 60-day deadline, Maryam would have been able to remain in the United States. Her husband, a physician with an H-1B, is on the waiting list for a “green card” to live here permanently. The waiting list is decades long.
Still, simply being in the queue allowed Maryam and her husband to stay and work in the US.
Longtime H-1B critic Ron Hira, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, said the program is used by companies to seek out cheaper foreign workers. Despite requiring that employers pay the prevailing wage, he said, “the Department of Labor has set that prevailing wage far too low.”
Under the Trump administration, USCIS sharply increased denials of H-1B visa requests and imposed new limits on eligible job specialties. Hira lamented that President Biden rescinded the Trump policies. He believes that making it easier for companies to hire from abroad threatens the livelihood of American workers.
But Dany Bahar, a professor of economics at Brown University, said 85,000 visas a year is a drop in the bucket for the labor market and poses no threat to US workers. “There’s definitely more demand for workers than supply.”
Bahar added that many foreign workers end up staying in the United States, adding to the nation’s talent pool and launching successful businesses. About 30 percent of all US patents are issued to immigrants or children of immigrants, he said, and a similar percentage of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
“If there’s any problem with immigration in America,” said Bahar, “it’s that we need more, not less.”
Meanwhile, visa holders are grateful for the opportunity to work in the United States but frustrated by the complex process, the constant peril of losing their job, and the narrow window for finding new work.
“For my case it worked out,” said Anjali, but for others who had to leave the country, “it’s not reasonable at all.”
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.