March 29, 2000

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Will I Be Sent Back If I Am Laid Off?

Suleman Din

As a member of the Immigrant Support Network, Anish Moni had plans to help the group set up its annual meeting at the Santa Clara City library on Tuesday evening. The ISN holds the free event so that immigrant workers with legal quandaries can get answers.

But instead of being able to provide support, the 31-year-old software developer was looking for answers too, having been laid off just that morning from the start-up where he worked.

Like the nearly hundred people who packed the library's small conference room, Moni's concern was whether or not he would have to leave the US because he was now 'out of status.'

"You put your heart and your soul into the economy, and your company ... and it all gets washed down the drain because of a piece of paper," he said, shaking his head, unable to hide a worried look on his face.

"You are here contributing like any other US citizen, paying taxes, supporting the economy," he continued, with his wife Maya and six-month old son Neel at his side, "but when things go wrong, foreign workers like us are the first to be targeted."

Much of the talk centered around news that given the current economic downturn, the Immigration and Naturalization Services will let H1-B workers stay in the US if they have lost their job.

Traditionally, foreign workers were under the impression that they would have to get a new job in ten days to transfer their visa to, or leave the country. They would be 'out of status' -- when you are not doing what your visa was granted for.

But in statements made to, INS spokeswoman Eyleen Schmidt said there was no actual time period prescribed in any legislation wherein an immigrant worker would have to find a new job, and that they could stay in the country until the date stamped on their visa expired.

Some attorneys, though, have cautioned immigrant workers that even with such news seeping out of Washington, H1-B workers should still be careful, and risk no more than being in the country unemployed for more than a month.

Murali Devarakonda, an ISN director and the event's organizer, compared the H1-B visa situation to software programming.

"Just like you can't write perfect code the first time, so does the law require debugging as well," he said.

Daniel Horne, the immigration attorney brought in by the ISN to answer audience questions, concurred.

"No one thought this through," Horne said. "No one in Congress thought about what would happen when the economy falters and a large number of people get laid off."

Horne suggested that the best thing to do if you are an H1-B worker who has been laid off or is going to be laid off, is to get as much information about your situation as you can, talk to your company's HR department, and consider getting an immigration attorney.

That was the best answer he could give, he said, considering the vague nature and complexity of immigration law. But his safe, noncommittal answers didn't wash over too well with the crowd, most of whom looked quite distressed.

"I know what you are saying," Horne replied to one man's garrulous questioning.

"Why should you trust a lawyers' advice, when you could be a potential client?"

"Yes, exactly," said the man.

"Well, I wish that every attorney in the US was straightforward and honest -- you'll have to decide whom you can trust."

Though Devakaronda was the acting mediator, he too voiced some of the frustration felt by those at the meeting.

"Last year, people couldn't give you jobs fast enough," Devakaronda said. "Now, everyone's out of a job. But that's not a reflection of the H1-B worker, this is just what happens in a bear market."

"Your employer may be in trouble, but you did nothing wrong. You are not to blame. You all play by the rules and one day you are out of status. That's not fair."

One solution put forward at the meeting was that H1-B workers should be allowed to freely switch jobs; another, that the H1-B visa be switched to a permanent residency program, much like Canada gives to its foreign tech workers.

But there was an inescapable sense of dread and disappointment in the audience. Many were not interested in hearing about the bigger picture -- instead, they came hoping to get answers specifically regarding themselves.

One man, who said he was a 32-year-old software developer from Bangalore and in the US for just over a year, admitted he came to the meeting because he was afraid he would lose his job.

"I can't find any concrete answers," he said. "It's tough because the law is so confusing."

If he had to leave the US, he said, he'd want enough time to sell off his house and try to get his daughter back into school as quick as possible.

Another woman, a software engineer from Hyderabad, said she would be laid off by the end of this week, and felt "betrayed."

Fortunately, she said, she is studying part-time for an MBA, and will switch to a student visa; also, her husband already has a green card.

"But what about those families who might get split up because one spouse loses their job and must go home?" she asked. "The whole family will have to leave."

Since his wife is dependent on him, it's a question Moni now has to consider.

He admitted that he took a risk when he left a steady job with Houston oil giant Enron to join a Silicon Valley start-up, like many other Americans.

Moni's son gurgled and looked quietly at his father from the stroller where he lay, while his wife told reporters that they would take everything "one day at a time."

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