- Tahmina Watson is an immigration lawyer in Seattle who often works with tech employees on visas.
- She described recent rounds of layoffs and hiring freezes as some of the worst she’s seen.
- She says laid-off visa holders can consider a self-employed visa if they want to start a business.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Tahmina Watson, an immigration lawyer from Seattle. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I was a barrister, or lawyer, in the United Kingdom before immigrating to the United States in 2005. I started practicing US immigration law in 2006 after sitting for the New York bar examination. However, living in Washington without a state license limited my practice areas.
Initially I didn’t want to practice immigration law, thinking that because I’m an empath it would pull at my heartstrings all the time. I eventually realized it’s so much more than asylum and refugee law — I love working with intelligent and innovative business leaders trying to change the world and make it a better place for everyone.
My clients want the ‘American dream’
They usually have an idea of where they want to live, whether it’s in Silicon Valley or where they have family and friends. My clients are based all over the US, since immigration law is federal and I can serve people anywhere in the country. In Seattle, where I live, people often stay after graduating from school or because they got a job at one of the Fortune 500 companies headquartered here.
My clients work for companies of all sizes, from startups to large corporations, and are cofounders, CEOs, executives, software engineers, data scientists, computer analysts, and many other titles. Outside the tech industry, I’ve helped secure visas for investors, entrepreneurs, teachers, therapists, architects, lawyers, musicians, artists, and religious workers.
I frequently work with human-resource departments. I also work with individuals who need guidance navigating the immigration maze and don’t have direct access to a company lawyer — I become a second opinion for them.
My fees are based on visa-application types. I assist in employment-based, investment-based, family-based, and naturalization cases. I usually offer flat fees for preparing cases which can range from $3,500 to $15,000.
This is an incredibly stressful time for anyone being laid off — and even more stressful for those on a visa that relies on an employer
There’s fear and anxiety about the future. People feel pressure to secure a new employer as soon as possible. However, they’re facing immense challenges because of the economic downturn resulting in hiring freezes.
One of my clients was recently told they’d be laid off from Amazon in a few weeks. This client is still there, trying to find an appropriate job. He’s not sure what will happen to him and is very anxious and afraid. Another client got laid off from Facebook and is in the middle of interviews and hoping to get a new job offer soon. I’ve talked to a few other laid-off people recently who didn’t say where they were laid off from. I had a Canadian client on a TN NAFTA visa hoping to adjust through her US-citizen spouse. The person was already married before the layoff occurred.
So far, the laid-off tech workers I’ve spoken with have had various citizenship backgrounds, including China, Canada, Japan, India, and Bangladesh. Many are getting four to eight weeks’ notice of their last date. Some stopped working immediately but are on payroll for a few more weeks. Their visa types are varied. Most of them are on H-1B visas, but some are on L-1 and TN visas.
One client explained that he arrived in the US on an L-1 visa from Southeast Asia in spring 2022. He uprooted his spouse and two children. The employer helped with some expenses, but he said it cost him more than $125,000 to move his life to the US. He didn’t for a moment anticipate a layoff.
The L-1 regulations are different from the H-1B regulations: H-1B rules require the employer to pay for the airfare back home if employment is terminated, while the L-1 doesn’t have that rule. So this person is being offered no financial assistance to return home. He’s undoubtedly in an unimaginable bind, engulfed in uncertainty, fear, anger, and stress.
The layoffs will result in entrepreneurship, and we must help innovative people with the option to do so
Visa holders who expect a pink slip should immediately start looking for a new employer to sponsor them. They should also seek legal advice about all their visa options. Depending on the country of their citizenship and current visa status, they could have opportunities to do something independently.
For example, many don’t know you can have a self-employed H-1B visa. Getting an H-1B visa with your own company requires a very put-together application with strong documentation. The key requirement is that you must demonstrate an employer-employee relationship. I’ve helped many entrepreneurs, business owners, and startup founders successfully obtain an H-1B visa with their own company as their sponsor. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
Many people wait to receive their green cards before taking the risk of entrepreneurship. But now they may not have a choice but to take that step.
To educate others on this issue, I’ve been holding visa workshops for laid-off skilled workers so they can learn about the visa options for starting their own companies.
The most common visa used for skilled professionals is the H-1B visa
The H-1B visa allows a total of six years in the US, but one can remain beyond six years if their employer has filed a green-card application on their behalf.
These people have a lot to lose. Their spouse may have a work permit. Their children, who were likely born in the US, may go to school.
The entire family’s visa status is at risk when someone’s laid off. The principal visa holder’s family can usually be in the US on a dependent visa and would hold H-4 or L-2 visas. In certain conditions, H-4 spouses are able to work and L-2 spouses can automatically work. Therefore, in these layoff situations, a two-income household immediately turns into a zero-income household. Children also lose their status. In one fell swoop, everyone’s life in a family is turned upside down.
The silver lining for H-1B visa holders is that they can transfer their visa to another sponsoring employer — if they can find one. Immigrants have a maximum of 60 days on their H-1B visa to obtain new employment. Given the current economic conditions, that may be hard. After the 60 days, they either change visa status or leave the country.
L-1 visa holders don’t have the same option as H-1B visa holders to transfer their visas to another company. Even if a new employer sponsors them, they must enter the H-1B lottery, a once-a-year application process that’s become increasingly difficult. For example, just over 120,000 visas were selected from over 480,000 applications in 2022 for the 2023 projected period.
Employees on an E-2 visa have similar challenges as the L-1 visa holder — they can be employed only by their original employer. If people are on other visas, such as the O-1 or the TN visa, they could work for a new employer upon the approval of a new application.
I don’t recall major tech companies ever laying people off at this scale and simultaneously freezing hiring
The situation is such that employers aren’t hiring or sponsoring visa applications — and that leaves skilled immigrants with few or no options but to leave the US.
This is a moment to recognize that 60 days is not enough time to either wrap up life in the US or find a new job with visa sponsorship. We should advocate extending the grace period; I think the administration should consider implementing a 120-day grace period. It would give both immigrant workers and US businesses the time they need to act.
I saw a similar situation unfold during the 2008-2009 recession, and it made me advocate for a “startup visa.” Many laid-off clients then told me they wanted to start their own companies and couldn’t because of our visa system. My book, “My Startup Visa,” is now in its second edition, but I haven’t seen the change in the law needed.
The mass layoffs are giving more urgency than ever for the US to offer a startup visa, a new visa category that exists in other countries to give foreign entrepreneurs permanent residency in that country to create jobs, innovation, and economic growth. It would allow talented entrepreneurs backed by venture, angel funding, or revenue to start their companies in the United States.
This is a time to be creative. That’s my new mission: using my voice as an immigration lawyer to push for tangible and immediate change.