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H1-B Visas: Indentured Servitude for 195 Years?


There’s an uncomfortable truth in the picture above.  It was posted a few weeks ago by Elon Musk as he departed a code review session at 1:30am.

Who would do code reviews at 1:30am?

H1-B visa holders.

Sure, there are some US citizens and permanent residents who’ll be gung-ho and working shoulder-to-shoulder with the boss all night, but I’d wager a fair amount of people in that picture are H1-B holders.

Companies can bring foreign nationals over to work in the US on various programs, most prominently in this discussion, the H1-B visa.  It’s designed for situations where the US lacks engineers, scientists, or technical specialists in critical skills.  You can’t hire entry-level individuals because public policy says “hire an American”.  For example, a junior, mid-level, or in some cases even senior sysadmin is not eligible for H1-B, but someone in a lead or principal role would be.  The Bureau of Labor maintains vast bureaucracy to support these decisions.

Sword of Damocles

Those coming to the US on H1-Bs are often employed “at will” by their employers.  While the consequences of anyone being laid off are unpleasant, for H1-B holders it can be dire, because they are only allowed in the US to work for that employer.

If they are laid off or terminated, a clock starts ticking.  They have 60 days (it was once much shorter) to either find another employer to sponsor them, or they must leave the country.

This means H1-B holders are often far more willing to put up with overwork, unpleasant assignments, and horrible bosses than domestic employees.  The extent to which employers know and exploit this varies, and certainly there are many employers that treat their H1-B holders the same as other employees.

However, there certainly are some who do not.

Keep in mind that on an H1-B, you’re bringing over someone who is probably in the top 20% or so skill-wise in their own country, and certainly employable there.  So these are not people that we’re lifting out of poverty who will be grateful to work 80 hours a week.

Nevertheless, the risk of trying to change jobs – or worse, be laid off – is a very serious.  If your new gig flops, you may be moving back to your native country.  Of course, the level of risk depends on time and place.  An H1-B holder with a hot IT skillset who lives in San Francisco is going to have a far easier time replacing his job than someone brought over to maintain COBOL in Wichita, Kansas.

But ow let’s imagine it’s 2022 and big tech is laying people off all over the place.  If you’re an H1-B holder, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that because you can be worked like a dog, less ethical employers love you, so this may give you more job security.  Well, that’s good news if working 80+ hours a week to keep your job is preferable to being laid off.  I guess the good news isn’t all that good, really.

The bad news is that if you’re let go, you’re now out on the street competing with tens of thousands of others…and not every employer is willing to or able to sponsor an H1-B.  It requires lawyers and at least some level of HR savvy to navigate.  You can’t discriminate on the basis of eligibility but you can certainly say you are not able to sponsor.  The thousands of domestic individuals you’re competing with are easier and cheaper to hire and have a natural edge, beyond the simple reality of being an American with a local social network.

And all the while, that 60-day clock is ticking.  If the alarm goes off, you have to return to your native country.  Considering that H1-B visas can be extended up to 6 years, that can be a huge impact to a family, who may have kids in school, leases and other commitments, etc.  You can’t really buy a house if you’re on an H1-B, and if you buy a car, you have to figure on what happens if you have to leave on 60 days’ notice.  This “ripcord could be pulled at any time” reality colors every decision you make about your life.

It’s 2215 and Your Green Card is Ready

Most H1-B visa holders aspire to reside permanently in the US, either as foreign nationals or US citizens.  To do so, they must acquire a Permanent Resident Card, colloquially known as a “green card”, which can optionally be a stepping stone to US citizenship.

The wait to get a PRC is partly eligibility and partly queueing for quota.  Only so many people from each country are allowed to receive a PRC each year.

I had a colleague from Costa Rica who was able to get his PRC quickly, because relatively few Costa Ricans immigrate to the US.  On the other hand, a nation like India, which has both an enormous population base and deep outsourcing ties to the US, has a very long queue.

How long?  According to a 2020 US Congress report entitled “The Employment-Based Immigration Backlog“, an Indian who filed for an H1-B in 2020 could expect to wait 195 years. And filing ASAP is recommended, as by 2030 the backlog is expected to increase to 436 years.

In other words, don’t even bother trying.

Green Card Wait






  1. user123:

    Thanks for this surprising, but important, post. I unexpectedly found myself in that position after being hired on in a professional leadership role. I ended up being bullied at work and was eventually terminated when they realized that I would continue refusing to take part in anything unethical or fraudulent. That experience has negatively affected at least two subsequent jobs and also left me with a lot of anxiety and significant trust issues. I used to use the Sword of Damocles to explain the figurative sword hanging over your head as a non-American working in the country, but friends born into citizenship didn’t understand. There are few limits on what some people will do for money, especially when it is culturally acceptable and systematized within an organization.

    At this point, I would not consider moving back to the US unless I’m being headhunted for a C-suite role and they make it worth my time. Even then, it would be a hard sell. It’s an abusive relationship and that vulnerability is not something to be taken lightly.

    January 16, 2023 @ 2:28 am | Reply
  2. Compared to domestic workers, H1-B holders are frequently far more willing to put up with abusive supervisors, excessive workloads, and disagreeable chores. Many firms treat their H1-B holders the same as other employees, although there are differences in the knowledge and exploitation of this amongst employers.

    April 25, 2024 @ 5:59 am | Reply

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