Vague Visa Rules Leave Laid-Off Twitter Worker Unable To Return to U.S.
Foreign-born tech workers in the U.S. have been especially vulnerable as tech giants lay off large shares of their work forces.
Late last year, Neuman Vong was planning a trip to see family in Australia. He was working for Twitter at the time, adjusting to the workplace in the wake of Elon Musk's takeover. Vong had outlasted two culls—one in November that resulted in 50 percent of Twitter staff being laid off, and another later that month following an email from Musk that demanded employees commit to being "extremely hardcore."
Vong spoke with his interim manager and new team director in December about his upcoming trip. They indicated that it wouldn't be a problem for him to work from Australia remotely, so he left the U.S. in January, first visiting Singapore and then Malaysia. There, Vong got the news that he'd been laid off after all. His interim manager had been moved to another team and his director had been fired.
The layoff would've been bad enough on its own, but because of the rules of Vong's visa, it landed him in a bureaucratic mess that now prevents him from returning to the United States. "February was hard," Vong tells Reason. "Coming to terms emotionally with staying in Australia a lot longer…how to move things out of my apartment in L.A., sell my car, and I've been trying to facilitate all of that remotely."
Vong was in the U.S. on an E-3 visa, which is reserved for highly skilled workers from Australia. Similar to the H-1B visa, another temporary visa for specialty workers, E-3 holders only have 60 days to find a new job if they're laid off. Otherwise, they have to leave the country. With mass layoffs taking place recently across the tech industry—which relies heavily on the H-1B program—thousands of foreign workers have been forced to scramble to find new work.
But Vong's case had an added layer of complexity since he was out of the country when he was laid off. "I was thinking, well, I have 60 days' grace, I'm still technically employed, maybe I can just like fly back to the U.S. right now, cancel the plans to hang with my family in January," he says. He consulted his immigration lawyer—who is also his friend—and learned that it might not be that simple. "There were all of these potential risks that plausibly could happen because of the uncertain, undefined circumstances around my unemployment, or technical unemployment," explains Vong. "None of that language matches the visa language.
Immigration officials could interpret his employment status in very different ways. On one hand, he was still technically employed, having been given "two months of a nonworking period" where he was still getting paid. On the other, he'd lost access to his company email. They could welcome him back without issue. "Or it could go the other way where it's like, 'It doesn't look like you're actively employed right now, and this visa requires you to be actively employed, so we're going to have to deny you entry,'" Vong says. An immigration officer might also feel that Vong was intentionally misrepresenting himself, which could lead to more severe penalties.
Ultimately, his lawyer warned him not to risk it. "I didn't have a reliable way to get back in," he says. Immigration lawyers interviewed by Fast Company, which covered Vong's story, indicated that he was "right to stay overseas for now."
Foreign-born tech workers have been especially vulnerable as tech giants lay off large shares of their work forces. Since last year, tech companies have laid off more than 257,000 people, according to The Wall Street Journal. Job listings in tech have declined as the industry contracts. Laid-off foreign workers have filled LinkedIn with requests for any leads, scrambling to find new jobs within the 60-day window.
In many cases, these are workers who have been in the U.S. for years or even decades. They've been in the country legally in connection with their employment, but due to long waits for green cards, many have been unable to adjust to permanent status. This is especially true for workers from India: "While there are almost half a million Indian nationals in the queue, only about 10,000 green cards a year are available for them," noted Bloomberg.
Vong started the green card application process a decade ago. He was working at Twitter then too—but got laid off, which canceled the process. After working at a few different startups, he started the green card process again, but that fell through because Vong left the company. In both cases, things might've been different if the process hadn't taken so long. "The first year of the green card process is to just do some kind of labor certification…to show that this person we're sponsoring for this has a unique set of skills that we need that we can't find on the open market," he says. "It takes a while, but I just couldn't stay at that startup" due to the climate, Vong explains.
Now based in Australia, Vong is weighing his options. "Initially, I thought I would interview, get a job, and then come back on a new visa," he says. "I've built a life there and all my friends are there…I'm paying taxes there, I'm part of communities there." But with the difficulty of securing a new tech job in the U.S. these days, he's beginning to "look at the doors that are open…rather than banging on the doors that are closed."
"I loved my time in the U.S. and I wish it was easier to stay," says Vong. "Feels like I should be able to, but for some bureaucratic reason, I can't."