One morning in late March, Shail Chokshi was called into what he thought was a routine meeting with his company’s new vice president. The 2018 graduate from the University of Texas-Arlington had been working at an artificial intelligence startup in Texas after immigrating from India for the better part of two years – long enough that he wasn’t worried about coronavirus-related layoffs.
“I was talking to my cousins the day before, telling them not to worry about me since I was already working remotely,” Chokshi said. “I was really safe and happy in my job.”
Then Chokshi was told that he was being laid off.
“From that day, it was a different world for me. I was really happy with the people I was working with, I was trusting them. But this thing happened and now I don’t feel like trusting easily at all,” Chokshi said.
Blindsided by the layoff, Chokshi asked HR if he could work for just a few months, even unpaid, so he could sort out his employment situation – but legal issues forced them to let him go at the end of the week.
Chokshi is now left without a job and a sponsor for his H1-B visa. He has just two months to find employment. But despite application after application, Chokshi hits the same dead-ends – companies either aren’t hiring or can’t sponsor foreign workers.
Chokshi is one of the thousands of foreign students who come from all over the world to seek out an American education. After they graduate, work visas allow US companies to sponsor these international students to work in specialized fields.
Once a worker with an H1-B visa - the most popular kind of work visa for foreign tech workers - loses their job, they have just 60 days to find an employer who will continue to sponsor their visa.
After that grace period passes, they have to leave the United States for good. International college graduates in entry-level positions have been hit particularly hard by cost-cutting measures from the pandemic that do away with all but the most essential workers.
According to Larry Harris, a faculty member at the Marshall School of Business, the fate of immigrant workers right now is almost entirely up to the state of the global economy. And with companies choosing to downsize rather than expand for the foreseeable future, things look grim for foreign-born workers who don’t have the luxury of waiting for things to blow over.
“It could take half a year, a year, or even more. It all depends on medicine, whether we have therapeutics, immunity and technology– anything that turns a potentially life-threatening illness into a bad cold,” said Harris, who is also a former chief economist at the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Khaled Altholoth faces the same ticking time bomb. In 2016, he left his family in Qatar to come to America and work as a wellsite geologist in Texas. He graduated from the University of Utah in 2018 with a master’s degree in Chemical Engineering, and was working under a program that allowed him to extend his student visa.
After getting laid off in April, he’s been trying his best to find an employer to sponsor him, under similarly unforgiving economic circumstances. Altholoth posted on LinkedIn – but after getting a less-than-stellar response there, he’s resorted to searching for jobs at national laboratories, where positions are still open.
On the side, he’s trying to learn how to code, since he’s heard that makes people more employable. If he doesn’t find a job within the next three months, he might not have a home to go back to at all. Altholoth has an Egyptian passport, but his family lives in Qatar, which has closed its borders to everyone who does not have a Qatari passport, as a COVID-19 related precaution.
“Honestly, if these two months go by, I will be in a sticky situation,” he said. “If I go to Egypt, I will be quarantined in a country I don’t know about for 14 days. And besides, I have never been to Egypt in my life.”
Altholoth is spending his time in a race against the clock, trying his best to find employment despite slim odds. Nearly 22 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits over just the past four weeks.
“Half the day goes to applying for jobs, and the other half goes to learning, investing in myself, researching and reading,” Altholoth said. “The clock is ticking.”
Despite the similarities in all the messages from foreign-born workers on LinkedIn, only some of them gain traction. Chokshi ended up being one of the lucky ones. Just a few minutes after posting his plea for help, he got an outpouring of support from employers and colleagues alike.
“My phone was flooded with calls. I was really overwhelmed by the reaction,” Chokshi said. “For anyone who gets laid off, I would advise you to post on LinkedIn ASAP.”
Chokshi now has two interviews lined up with potential employers in the next two weeks. But he still spends his days in isolation applying for jobs and preparing for his upcoming interviews in case something falls through.
It’s a draining cycle, so he breaks out of his self-imposed quarantine for a short walk in the evenings and has a brief chat with his family back home in India– anything to take himself away from the stress of reality.
“They cannot understand the [visa] situation right now, and I know they are worried about me,” he said. “But I have cousins staying here in Texas, I have a supportive family and I know I am going to come back and fight strong.”