Shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to millions of workers across the country being laid off from their jobs. This has been a hardship for many people, but for those in the United States on work visas, the situation has become particularly tenuous.
H-1B visas are specialty visas granted to foreign workers who have at least a four-year college degree. This visa program is commonly associated with the tech sector but is also available for workers in healthcare, academia, and other fields. The United States puts a cap of 65,000 visas every year. When the number of applications exceeds the cap, which it typically does, then the applications processed are chosen by a lottery system. Most H-1B visa holders have made multiple attempts before being granted a visa.
In order to stay in status for an H-1B visa, you must be working for the employer you stated you would be working for in your application. You also need to be working the hours you said you would be working and in the location in which you said you’d be working. If there are any major changes to your employment, then you must refile your application. When you’ve been laid off, furloughed, or had your hours reduced, this makes the situation complicated.
If a person who has been laid off doesn’t file a new H-1B petition with a new employer, then they risk being in the country unlawfully. The longer this person stays in the United States, the more severe the long-term penalties. It can affect future immigration status, and there can possibly be travel penalties. If someone stays 12 months or more past the expiration of their visa, they can be banned from entering the United States for ten years. The government typically recommends returning to your home country until you can get your visa worked out, but with the travel restrictions in place in many countries, this can be difficult.
While an H-1B visa holder searches for work, they are not eligible for unemployment benefits, and their numbers are not counted in the overall unemployment figures. This is despite the fact that H-1B visa holders pay taxes.
Finding a new employer during the 60-day period can be rough, especially in the current climate. There are other obstacles faced by visa holders. For one, USCIS has closed its offices nationwide to avoid person to person contact. It has also suspended premium processing, which is a tool that can be used to expedite time-sensitive applications. In addition, some employers may be looking to hire new employees but may not be willing or able to sponsor visas. H-1B visa holders approaching their six-year limit may not be able to get their employers to commit to sponsoring a green card.
The American Immigration Lawyers Association is seeking relief for visa holders. They have asked that the requirement that visa holders file new H-1B applications when their employment status has been changed to be waived. They’ve also asked for an extension of deadlines and the automatic maintenance of all legal statuses for workers during the emergency. The USCIS has committed to making some changes, but the uncertainty faced by visa holders is tremendous.
If you are having issues with your visa due to the pandemic, an immigration attorney can help. At Serving Immigrants, Inc., we have the experience and the knowledge to guide you through the process. Contact us online or call us at (305) 907-6151 to schedule a strategy session.