For foreign professionals in the US, the rising unemployment rate is especially daunting. Laid-off foreign workers are scrambling for temporary visas and seeking advice from immigration attorneys about how long they can legally stay in the country while hunting for jobs. Even some foreigners here on visas or work permits are switching employers, fearing that an unstable job during a recession could ultimately kill their chance of getting a green card.
Thirty-eight-year-old Caron Traub of South Africa panicked after losing her job as a business development manager. With plans for an April wedding in Atlanta to her Canadian fiance, who has a green card, Traub worried that she could be forced to leave the country.
An undetermined number of foreign workers have been casualties of the recession, which pushed the nationwide jobless rate to 6.7 per cent in November, a 15-year high. Foreign residents with valid visas that authorise them to work in the US can qualify for jobless benefits if they meet the requirements of the state in which they file.
Nearly half a million foreign professionals are working in the US on visas, known as H-1Bs, or have applied for green cards with support from their employers, said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy.
Companies are required to notify the US immigration agency when a visaholder stops working for them, said Bill Wright, an agency spokesman.
Immigration lawyers say they have received an increasing number of calls from foreign professionals who have been terminated. Cyrus Mehta, an immigration attorney in New York, said he was fielding a call a week from foreign workers who lost their jobs last year.
One of the biggest challenges for laid off visaholders is the lack of a grace period to leave. Firms must provide a return ticket home for workers, who may try to switch to another visa, such as a six month tourist visa, to buy time to pack their bags or look for another job.
For the last six years, the demand for visas has surpassed a 65,000 annual cap put in place by Congress, with 163,000
applications filed last year.