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As Trump suspends new H-1B visas, many tech workers face an uncertain future

People who spent years building their lives in the US are questioning everything.

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President Trump's suspension of work visas in June placed many immigrant tech workers in limbo.

Angela Lang/CNET

When President Donald Trump temporarily suspended the issuance of work visas in late June, Sumana Kaluvai wasn't immediately worried. Her dad, an engineer at a software company, is on an H-1B visa for highly skilled employees. Because he's been in the US for more than two decades, the new policy wouldn't affect him, she figured.

Kaluvai was wrong. Her father had gone back to India in early March to get his visa restamped. But the process was delayed when the coronavirus pandemic forced the US embassy in Chennai to close. Then, Trump signed the executive order on June 22, pushing what had been a routine task into early next year. In the meantime, Kaluvai's dad is working remotely. (CNET isn't using her father's name for privacy reasons.)

"It really makes me question why people like myself, my father and other immigrants continue staying in a country that we call home, yet doesn't welcome us and continues to take so much away from our community," said Kaluvai, who works in biotech and pharma consulting and is on an F-1 Optional Practical Training work visa. "I don't know how much longer hundreds of thousands of people like myself will continue to stay in this country."

Kaluvai's sentiment is shared by many immigrants on work visas, including the H-1B. Many feel they can't put down roots in the US, even though they've been here for years. Some have turned to countries, such as Canada, that have more-welcoming immigration policies. Others have returned to their homelands. Many immigrants who stay in the US live with day-to-day anxiety over their status, wondering if it might change overnight.

Trump said the suspension of work visas, which will reportedly block more than 500,000 people from entering the US this year, will help unemployed Americans find jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy," Trump's proclamation reads. "But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain nonimmigrant visa programs authorizing such employment pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers."

Critics argue the executive order will stifle US economic growth and progress, especially in the tech and science industries. The H-1B visa program has been critical for bringing creativity and innovation to Silicon Valley, they say. The technology sector has long relied on H-1B visas to hire high-skilled workers for roles it can't fill with Americans because of the shortage of STEM workers. The visa lasts for three years but can be renewed.

Around three-quarters of the 85,000 H-1B visas allotted each year go to computer science workers, according to the Associated Press, some of whom work for Silicon Valley giants. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple -- which were collectively granted around 27,000 H-1B visas in 2019 -- have criticized Trump's order, warning that a shortage of talent would inhibit technological advancement and progress. Immigration advocates have also spoken out about the impact this will have on families, who are at risk of being torn apart. 

"There is definitely a chilling effect," said Kalpana Peddibhotla, an immigration attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area. "It's sending a message that people are not welcome, people who can actually help spur the growth of our economy."

Planning for an uncertain future

That's a common sentiment among people on all kinds of temporary work visas, says Peddibhotla. It's especially the case for those who've started families here. 

"There's so much uncertainty about their employment that it's hard for them to make long-term plans and set up roots here in the United States, despite often having US-citizen children," Peddibhotla said. "You're in this in-between land while you're raising your American children, and then you're not pursuing home ownership or other ways of settling down here because of that uncertainty."

What makes things more challenging for holders of H-1B or other work visas is that if they lose their job, they have only 60 days to find a new one or change their visa status. Otherwise, they are forced to leave the country.

That was the case for Asim Fayaz. The Pakistani immigrant worked as a product manager at Bay Area companies Premise and Elementum, but, like many tech employees, he experienced layoffs and was forced more than once to scramble to find a new job to keep his visa. After getting laid off in December, however, he and his wife decided the stress wasn't worth it. He'd grown tired of the constant uncertainty over whether he'd be allowed back into the US every time he went overseas. So he moved to Toronto, where he's now co-owner of a restaurant.

"Nobody wants to live in this fear of, 'What if my family's sick back home and I need to travel?'" Fayaz said. "'Will I be able to come back?'"

Amn Rahman, a Pakistani immigrant and senior data engineer at application packaging company Docker, began working in the US in 2016 but is currently abroad and working remotely. Because her H-1B visa entry stamp has expired, she can't reenter the US for work. Her company has been flexible, but she's still apprehensive about her future and how long she'll be able to hold onto her American job with visa restrictions in place.

"It's a very precarious situation to be in," Rahman said. "You always feel like you're walking on eggshells."

Implications for future generations

International students, many of whom might want to seek employment in the US after graduation, also face uncertain visa situations. In early July, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said international students whose universities remain online-only in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic would have to either transfer to a school with in-person instruction or leave the country

More than half of graduate STEM degrees are earned by international students, according to OneZero. Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 17 states and the District of Columbia sued the Trump administration to try to block the measure. On July 14, the administration rescinded the rule amid mounting opposition.  

Sudhanshu Kaushik, executive director of the North American Association of Indian Students, says he's spoken with countless international students who nonetheless live on edge every day regarding their status in the US. 

"How much uncertainty and animosity can you take?" Kaushik said.

For families like Kaluvai's, the only certainty in their lives is that things could change at any moment. 

Her father will have to wait until 2021 to book a new appointment at the embassy. If he can't return to the US soon, Kaluvai worries her dad will lose his job, forcing both of her parents to leave the country. That would leave her 16-year-old brother, the only US citizen in the family, without his primary caregivers. 

"What's next?" Kaluvai said. "You're always worrying about when it'll be your turn to start freaking out."