Recent mass layoffs at big US tech firms have plunged into uncertainty several Indians working on non-immigrant visas such as the H1-B. Surbhi Gupta, a product manager at Meta who was among those affected, spoke to California-based journalist Savita Patel about how it took her time to accept it, the uncertainties that H1-B visa holders deal with, and what she plans to do next.
It was my mum’s birthday. I was staying up late to wish her and that’s when I started getting messages from my friends about layoff announcements. They were all anxious.
At around 6am here, I received an email that I’d been let go. I had joined Meta earlier this year as a product manager. My team was shocked because I’d been performing really well.
It went against my motto, work is worship, instilled early by my favourite teacher at school. Initially, it felt like the Titanic sinking because I was losing access to things one by one – workplace, then email, then laptop. But I was pleasantly overwhelmed and surprised in a positive way by my network on LinkedIn. Many colleagues, ex-colleagues and friends reached out in a very supportive way, making introductions and referrals. It made me feel like I have so many people in this country who care for me, made me feel like I belong to this country.
My last day at Meta is in January and my H1-B visa [a non-immigrant visa that allows firms in the US to hire foreigners for up to six years] allows me to stay in the US for another 60 days, so early March is the deadline for me to find another job.
The job search is going to be difficult now as hiring will be slow in December because of the holidays. But I’m very focused. I am in touch with multiple companies and exploring options.
What I’ll miss most about Meta is the workplace and my colleagues. Being at Meta meant not only being able to build an amazing product for millions of people, but also being able to participate in fireside chats and growth and learning opportunities. As a product manager, it would have been rewarding to see the project I was working on go further.
My parents taught me to never give up in life. They tell me to stay strong because I’m a person who can convert problems into opportunities. They tell me ‘aur kuch accha mil jayega’ [you’ll find something better].
But my ability to work and stay in the US depends on my H1-B visa. I moved to the US in 2009 and I have worked very hard to build my career on my own strength and intellect. I have worked in prominent companies like Tesla, Intuit, etc., built great products, got top ratings, paid taxes, and contributed to the US economy for more than 15 years, but I feel that I am in the same place as far as permanent residency goes because of the limitations of the H1-B. I was crowned Miss Bharat California [a beauty pageant] by my idol, Bollywood actress Sushmita Sen. I have walked the ramp at New York Fashion Week. I have my own podcast.
We face unnecessary stress because the US has a country cap which takes forever for Indian H1-B holders to get a green card (permanent residency). Even though I am in the green card queue, when I track my status, I sometimes get a wait-time of two decades, and at other times, 60 years.
Our personal life suffers because of the uncertainty. Buying a home has been a question mark in my mind – do I invest in a home and then what if I have to leave. In spite of having gone ahead with the YC [Y Combinator is an American technology start-up accelerator], I can’t start a company even though I have a great idea because I don’t have a green card.
I travelled to 30 countries before turning 30 years old, but now I’m unable to travel much, even though it’s my dream to travel the world, because I’m nervous about facing problems while trying to get my H1-B visa re-stamped. I have heard from my friends who work at great companies like Google and PayPal about getting stuck abroad.
I have even curtailed my travels home to India. A few years back, I got stuck in India. I had gone to attend a wedding and I had to get my H1-B visa stamped. But that took several months as it went into random administrative processing and I wasn’t even sure when it would come through. The uncertainty and the wait caused problems in my marriage. The visa issues had a very big role in my marriage. It was not the only reason, but it became one of the major reasons for the break-up of my marriage. I also had to drop out of a semester at New York University, where I was studying at the time, because I didn’t know when I would be able to return to the US. Why do people on H1-Bs have to deal with this?
I have not met my parents since the Covid-19 pandemic because they haven’t been able to come to visit me for three-and-a-half years. They are elderly, and don’t keep too well. I constantly think – if my parents need support, will I be able to go to help them? Nobody realises how it impacts our life.
But despite whatever has happened, I believe this experience too has a silver lining. Spirituality is a significant part of my life. I am a believer and follower of Sadhguru ji [as followers refer to Indian yoga guru Jaggi Vasudev]. He says that we should not be identified only by or limit our identity to our professional role. In Silicon Valley, the most frequently asked question is – Which company do you work for? But I am still me, not just a product manager. Everyone should realise that they are more than just the company they work for.