On the last day of January, Sruthi Pasupulati learned she’d be among the roughly 950 people laid off by NetApp, a California-based data management company with a significant presence in Research Triangle Park.
While this news likely unsettled many of her colleagues, losing the job meant something different to her.
A software engineer in Cary, Pasupulati has been living in the United States for the past eight years, with the last five spent on a work visa. But without a job, she faces a looming 60-day deadline to secure other employment or likely have to leave the country.
Given her experience and education, she is confident she could eventually land a new job. But the timing is tight.
“It’s a very stressful situation that I’m currently in,” she said. “Most of the companies have a hiring freeze, and many people have gotten laid off.”
Pasupulati, 31, is one of thousands of North Carolina residents on H-1B visas, the popular work visa employers use to fill high-skilled positions. Last year, around three-fourths of H-1B visas went to Indian nationals, and in North Carolina, many reside live in Indian-American enclaves in Cary and Morrisville.
After a post-pandemic hiring spree, the tech sector has recalibrated with job cuts both nationally and across the Triangle, at major firms and startups. Behind the growing list of layoff headlines are visa workers left scrambling for alternatives.
“I know a lot of people in this situation,” said Lavanya Poosarla, founder and CEO of Pinnacle Tek, an IT staffing firm in Cary. “Too many to count.”
A decade on a ‘temporary’ visa
H-1B visas are meant to be temporary, but workers from high-demand countries like India often stay on these visas for years, if not more than a decade, as they inch through a backlogged green card process.
According to the U.S. Department of State, the current wait time for Indian nationals to receive green cards — which grant permanent status in the U.S. — is more than 10 years, with people who applied in 2012 just now getting their applications considered. Until then, Indian H-1B workers, and often their family members, are one layoff away from facing a ticking clock that, if it expires, will mean returning to India. Under federal law, H-1B holders have 60 days after their employment ends to transfer their visas to new employers.
“There’s no better example than right here, where you and I are, of why this immigration system is broken,” said Steve Rao, a council member for the town of Morrisville. “This is an issue that’s affecting people. It’s also separating families.”
Last year, Pasupulati was one of approximately 7,700 workers to have H-1B visas approved in North Carolina.
She grew up in the Indian city of Hyderabad, and came to the U.S. as a graduate assistant in 2015. Three years later, she began working as a software analyst in Iowa under an H-1B. Sensing her employer was dragging its feet on sponsoring her green card, she applied for a job at NetApp’s RTP office, where she started in January 2022.
Pasupulati was heartened that NetApp took her green card application seriously. Following federal requirements, the company advertised her position in local newspapers to ensure U.S. citizens had opportunities to fill the position, and as recently as mid-January, NetApp submitted paperwork for a labor certification, another prerequisite before the company could file Pasupulati’s green card eligibility form — known as an I-140.
An approved I-140 isn’t a green card, but it’s very valuable to H-1B holders who wish to stay in the U.S. long term. It grants workers both a slot in the green card queue and the ability to repeatedly renew their three-year visas until they achieve permanent status.
A ray of hope dashed
For Pasupulati, seeing NetApp move forward with her I-140 process felt “like a little ray of hope.”
She had waited years for her employer in Iowa to take this on. An approved I-140 would mean she could renew her work visa for a second time before it expires in September 2024. It also had personal implications. She and her husband, who works on his own H-1B work visa, had discussed starting a family once their work situations stabilized.
Yet before the end of the month, Pasupulati learned she’d be part of a mass layoff at NetApp, which the company said affected around 8% of its workforce. It is her understanding the company will not proceed with her I-140 application (a NetApp spokesperson told The News & Observer the company does not publicly comment on “individual personnel matters”).
If Pasupulati can’t find an employer to take on her visa before the 60-day grace period, she says she’ll most likely return to India. While she could remain in the U.S. as a dependent of her husband, it would mean Pasupulati couldn’t work, at least not for a number of years as she applied for specific work authorization.
To her, living in the U.S. without a job does not feel like a viable path. Neither, frankly, does returning to India.
Navigating the job market on a visa
Rishi Oza, an attorney at the Brown Immigration Law office in Durham, said constructing a new H-1B application typically takes two to three weeks, meaning the deadline for workers like Pasupulati to find new employment is really closer to 45 days.
Oza said visa holders who are laid off still had options, either within the 60-day window or soon after returning to their home countries. “Most people who are really highly skilled, they’re able to land new jobs,” he said. According to the North Carolina Tech Association, there were 13,500 open IT positions in January across the greater Triangle region.
Many employers keep workers on their payrolls for weeks or months after announcing layoffs, Oza pointed out, meaning visa holders often have longer than two months to find a transfer. For example, Pasupulati said she’ll be counted as a NetApp employee until April 1, at which point her 60-day window begins.
Yet from her vantage point as the head of an IT staffing firm, Poosarla said the retrenching tech labor market and complex visa rules present unique challenges for H-1Bs who lose their jobs.
Poosarla, whose clients include employers from across the country, said nationwide layoffs at firms like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Google have left visa holders competing not only with each other but also with newly out-of-work, permanent residents.
And she’s seen which group many companies prefer to hire.
“There are fewer employers who usually take (H-1B transfer) cases,” she said, noting the time and costs associated with hiring visa workers, especially those like Pasupulati who seek a company to quickly sponsor her green card application lest they be unable to renew their visas.
And if they deport to India, the chances of returning dwindles, Poosarla said.
“Any employer will choose to go with some local workers who are already in the U.S due to the simplicity of the process and cost,“ she said.
‘It’s kind of a roller coaster thing’
In an “ultra-competitive, international economic landscape,” Oza believes losing highly skilled talent hurts the United States.
“They’re all really, really smart people that go on to open other businesses, and hire American workers, and have patents and trademarks and all these other innovations that we want,” he said. “All these things that we consider valuable.”
For Oza, one solution would be for the U.S. government to expedite the green card approval process for Indian and Chinese nationals, with the latter group also facing a green card backlog due to high demand.
Backing a popular policy idea, Rao suggested foreign nationals should be given green cards along with their graduate and doctoral degree diplomas.
“During a labor crisis when we need more workers, we’re now making it harder for the global talent we need to stay here,” said Rao, who previously served on the board of New American Economy, a nonprofit immigration policy group chaired by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Poosarla and Pasupulati each said they would like to see the federal government give laid off H-1B workers more time to find new employment beyond 60 days, especially during tougher economic periods.
“The U.S. should understand how the recession is impacting immigrants and situations like mine,” Pasupulati said.
For now, Pasupulati spends her days submitting applications as part of a nationwide search for work. She applied to the Raleigh software company Red Hat, but was later informed the company had eliminated the position. Another local employer recently notified her that it wouldn’t move forward in the hiring process due to her visa status.
These setbacks fueled Pasupulati’s already palpable concerns and confusion. Without a job, would she remain beyond June 1? What happens if her husband gets laid off? If she finds a job soon, will her new employer initiate her I-140 process in time before Pasupulati’s current visa expires?
And when will be the right time to have a child?
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” she said. “It’s kind of a roller coaster thing.”
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.
This tale was at first published February 28, 2023, 1:37 PM.