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I'm on a H1-B visa and my employer has laid me off. What can I do?

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Q: I HAVE an H-1B visa from a U.S. employer. However, last month I was laid off from my job. I worked for the company for a little over a year and I absolutely loved it. Losing the job was devastating, but the prospect of going back to Ireland fills me with dread. I want to make my home here. What can I do with this H-1B visa, which is good for almost two more years?

A: NOT a lot, is the short answer, and from the information you’ve provided it seems very likely that you may be out of status here. Therefore, it’s important that you take the information that follows as general, and speak to an immigration attorney or other qualified expert as soon as possible.

The H-1B visa is employer specific – in other words, you are bound to work only for the U.S. employer who acted as the visa sponsor.

If an employee is terminated prior to the expiration of the H-1B visa, the employer has an obligation to pay the reasonable cost of transportation out of the U.S. (If the employee quits the employer is not legally responsible for this cost.)

The employer is also bound to promptly notify the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) of “any material changes in the terms and conditions of employment.” Termination would be one such change.

A terminated employee doesn’t by law have an official “grace period” after the employment ends, though it is taken that USCIS will allow 10 days for the visa holder to leave the country. After that the H-1B visa ceases to be a valid document for living and working in the U.S., even though in your case the visa doesn’t expire until sometime in 2011. Once the employment ends, the visa’s validity ends with it.

Again, a lawyer will advise you of what’s the best path to take, but as you’ve already qualified for an H-1B visa you obviously have a higher degree and marketable skills.

Though the economy is extremely tough for job-seekers these days, and Americans aplenty are out of work, perhaps you could find another U.S. employer to act as a visa sponsor for you. This would require you starting the H-1B visa application process from scratch, though, and you’d have to return to Ireland to do so. (And, as mentioned, the employer that fired you must pay your return fare home.)

If you choose to remain here remember that you will be out of status, and this will affect your future prospects of becoming legal.

In a sure sign of the times, the popularity of the H-1B program among U.S. employers has dipped along with the fortunes of the economy. Each year there are 65,000 H-1B visas available, and in the recent past that cap would be filled a day or two after the visas became available each spring.

But for the ongoing fiscal year 2010, it’s a different story. The USCIS reports that as of November 27, 2009, “approximately 58,900 H-1B cap-subject petitions had been filed . . . USCIS will continue to accept both cap-subject petitions and advanced degree petitions until a sufficient number of H-1B petitions have been received to reach the statutory limits.”

That’s good news for those seeking H-1B visas . . . but also bad because it clearly shows that U.S. employer demand for the visas has dimmed.

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