By Stephen McKinley
Highly skilled immigrant workers in the U.S. who have been laid off during the recent economic downturn have fallen into a pit of legal uncertainty about their immigration status.
Many had moved to the U.S. from Ireland and other countries training high-tech workers during the mid-1990s, attracted by higher salaries and a seemingly unending demand for their talents.
The visa status of choice for American companies employing them was the L-1 visa or the H1B. Both visas require foreign workers to remain in employment with the company that sponsored their visa status.
This presented problems when workers wished to leave for a different job, but normally companies during the tech boom were more than willing to soak up the high legal costs of recruiting foreigners and processing visas.
Bigger problems began when workers were laid off since the tech slump of mid-2000, and found that they had a limited time to find a new job or be expected to leave the country.
For those with mortgages and car payments — new lives in the new world — the situation has been particularly uncertain. Nor, say immigration advice workers, has the Immigration and Naturalization Service been particularly helpful in clarifying the situation for foreign workers.
“If an immigrant is laid off and entered the U.S. on H1B status, the immigrant falls out of status immediately,” said Kieran O’Sullivan of the Irish Immigration Center in Boston. “The law does not provide a grace period to persons in H-1B status who are laid off. However, in reality, the INS does provide a small amount of leeway to persons in H-1B status. If the immigrant submits an H-1B petition from a new employer within 30 days of their last day of employment, it is likely that the INS will accept the H-1B extension and change of employer. The immigrant begins accruing days of unlawful presence upon the expiration date on the immigrant I-94 attached to his or her passport.”
One Irish woman whose case O’Sullivan said typified the fate of many, told the Echo that “things had been roaring along” until last year, when the economic slump hit.
“My office went from about 170 employees to 50. Then by November 2000, it fell to 10,” said Mary (not her real name). Then she herself was told that she had been laid off. She described a complicated legal and immigration situation that left her confused, angry and at times frightened that what had started as a new life in the United States might come to an ugly end because of events beyond her control.
“I’m not ready to go back and settle in Ireland,” she said. “I’ve traveled out of a suitcase for years. I wanted to go buy a house and settle down.”
Her situation left her with 60 days to find a new job and begin processing a new visa — in the end, she was due to leave the U.S. on Feb. 1. She was rehired by her company on Jan. 28.
She continued that her American colleagues were sympathetic but often had no idea what immigrants experience when their status becomes complicated or compromised. “They’re completely free to come and go,” she said.
The fate of many high-tech workers has gone unnoticed since Sept. 11 events have dominated the news.