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Immigrants on work visas, suddenly jobless, must leave US if not rehired

The lives of tens of thousands of workers on skilled-worker visas, such as H-1Bs, have been upended by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. Many of them Indian, they have been waiting several years to obtain permanent legal residency through their employer, and now face the prospect of deportation

By Miriam Jordan
Published: May 13, 2020

Immigrants on work visas, suddenly jobless, must leave US if not rehiredAndrew Jenkins and Krista York of Minnesota, who were set to marry on Aug. 20 at the Cathedral of St. Paul, outside the cathedral in St. Paul, Minn., on Saturday, May 9, 2020. After the coronavirus struck, Jenkins, who is British, lost his job as a market research analyst. The Trump administration is unlikely to allow laid-off holders of H-1B and other work visas to extend their stay in the country amid the coronavirus pandemic
Image: Jenn Ackerman/The New York Times

Like millions of American workers, an Indian software engineer, a British market researcher and an Iranian architect lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike Americans, they are not entitled to unemployment benefits, despite paying taxes, because they are on foreign work visas. And, if they fail to find similar jobs soon, they must leave the country.

Rejish Ravindran analyzed data for a national footwear retailer, helping make sales projections and investment decisions. After hiring him on an H-1B skilled-worker visa nearly two years ago, the company recently sponsored his application for legal permanent residency, a process that takes several years to complete.

“It was going good. I thought I would be in Michigan forever. We were going to buy a house and settle down here,” said Ravindran, 35, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His wife, Amrutha, a nurse, was finishing a course and hoped to put her training to use soon.

But battered by the coronavirus outbreak, the retailer furloughed Ravindran last month, which is not allowed under the terms of his visa. So two days later, the company terminated him.

“Everything came crashing down,” said Ravindran, who arrived in the United States in 2012.

Now, he is scrambling to find another job before the 60-day grace period for transferring his visa to another employer expires early next month. He is not optimistic.

The lives of tens of thousands of foreign workers on skilled-worker visas, such as H-1Bs, have been upended by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. Many have been waiting in a backlog for several years to obtain permanent legal residency through their employer, and now face the prospect of deportation.

The Trump administration is also expected within the next few weeks to halt the issuance of new work visas such as the H-1B, for high skilled foreigners, and the H-2B, for seasonal employment. The new measures under review, according to two current and two former government immigration officials, would also eliminate a program that enables foreign graduates of American universities to remain in the country and work.

The tightening work rules come as unemployment in the U.S. soared last month to 14.7%, the highest level on record, and as calls escalated in Congress for Americans to be given priority for jobs.

“Given the extreme lack of available jobs for American job-seekers as portions of our economy begin to reopen, it defies common sense to admit additional foreign guest workers to compete for such limited employment,” a group of Republican senators said in a letter last week calling for a suspension of new visas to guest workers who have not yet entered the country.

For those already rooted in the U.S., the consequences of canceling the existing visas are “life-altering,” said Shev Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“They have been thrown into limbo. It’s not like they can go and just find any job, like at a pizza place,” said Dalal-Dheini. A new job must meet specific criteria for the visa, such as by paying a certain salary and requiring at least a bachelor’s degree.

Dalal-Dheini’s association of 15,000 lawyers has asked U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to extend the grace period, giving H-1B holders at least 90 days after the public health emergency has ended to find employment.

An agency spokesman did not address whether an extension was under consideration. He said the agency would continue to monitor the coronavirus and “assess various options related to temporary worker programs.”

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has thrust immigration and job displacement onto center stage, introducing a series of policies to curtail both legal and illegal immigration. More recently, his administration has cited the pandemic to justify even stricter restrictions.

On April 22, Trump suspended the entry of new immigrants for 60 days. Less noticed in his proclamation was the order to the secretaries of labor and homeland security for a speedy review of nonimmigrant work visa programs.

As of Jan. 21, there were 421,276 people in the United States on H-1B visas, three-quarters of them Indians, and many of them technology workers. About 220,000 people were enrolled in the 2018-19 academic year in the Optional Practical Training program, which allows foreign students to work after completing their studies.

The strong economy had fueled brisk demand for foreign workers in recent years, with H-1B applications by private companies far outstripping the annual supply of 85,000, a situation that prompted the government to resort to a lottery to award them.

But proponents of limiting immigration say that if there was ever a time to prioritize American workers, it is now.

“If an H-1B visa holder is terminated from their job and is unable to find another employer willing to sponsor them, they should go back home,” said Kevin Lynn, executive director of Progressives for Immigration Reform, which advocates for American technology workers.

U.S. citizens with foreign partners on visas are also affected.

Andrew Jenkins and Krista York of Minnesota began more than a year ago to plan their wedding. The couple had settled on getting married Aug. 22 at the majestic Cathedral of St. Paul, where York’s grandparents were married decades ago and she was confirmed in the church as a teenager. Then the coronavirus struck.

York was furloughed. Jenkins, who is British, lost his job as a market research analyst. Because he is on an H-1B visa, Jenkins is not eligible for unemployment. “It’s far from ideal to not have any income when you’re planning your wedding,” said Jenkins, 27.

What’s worse, the couple said, is that Jenkins is in a race against time to find another job before his visa expires in July.

Unless he succeeds, they may have to hurriedly get married at a courthouse so that Jenkins can salvage his immigrant status — by filing an application for a green card through a spouse. If that happens, the couple will not be allowed to hold a religious ceremony at the cathedral.

“Everything is ready to go for the cathedral. But if we have to get married on paper, we’ll have to find another church,” said York, 27.

Bahar Shirkhanloo of Iran completed a master’s degree in architecture two years ago and used the Optional Practical Training program to get a job at a firm in Chicago, where she is part of a team that designs high-rise residential buildings.

Early this year, the firm decided to sponsor her for a green card. But she was abruptly terminated in early April when projects came to a standstill, leaving her with 60 days, under the terms of the program, to find a new job.

“I’m applying every day, everywhere in the U.S. you can think of,” said Shirkhanloo, 28. Most often, she hears the same thing: “They are interested, but, for now, there’s a hiring freeze.”

In Michigan, Ravindran is contemplating selling his 2013 Honda Accord to make the rent and pay outstanding bills, including $6,000 for a hospital visit by his wife last year.

The son of a tea stall owner and the first to attend college in his family, the software engineer said that if he ends up having to return to India, “I want to clear all my debts. I need to make a smooth exit from the U.S.”

But there is a wrinkle: Commercial flights to India have been suspended since that country went into lockdown in March. While the government recently started repatriating some Indians stranded abroad, it has stipulated that pregnant women, older people and those with medical conditions will have priority.

That could put someone like Ravindran at risk of overstaying his visa, which could jeopardize his ability to live in the United States in the future.

“If I don’t find a new job, I can’t stay here,” he said.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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