Huy Tu still remembers their first day of work at Instagram.
Tu grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in a working class family. The idea of getting a job at a world-famous company like Instagram seemed like a fantasy.
But Tu got in to college in the U.S., earned a Ph.D. and then landed that dream job at the social media giant, working as a research scientist in artifical intelligence.
They arrived at Instagram’s offices in downtown New York in February of 2022, with a fake plant and a laminated sign that read: “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”
Walking through the doors, Tu was amazed. There was original artwork on every floor, designer furniture, free food.
“I felt very humble,” recalls Tu. “It was like the American dream, as cliché as that sounds. It felt like, I finally made it! You know?”
The email that upended their world
For the first time, Tu had stability and a steady income. So they booked a long overdue trip back to Vietnam for the Lunar New Year to see family and deliver the good news in person.
“I hadn’t seem them for three years,” says Tu. “I was gonna surprise them.”
But then, in early November – just 8 months into their job at Instagram – Tu got a surprise of their own. It’s a moment they still remember vividly.
“I got an email at 6 in the morning. Actually, 6:10 a.m. est.” Tu recalls. “It was pretty traumatizing.”
The email said Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, was losing money and CEO Mark Zuckerberg had made the “hard but necessary decision” to lay off 13% of the company’s workers, or about 11,000 people in total.
“Unfortunately you were included,” the email continued. Tu says they looked at the email for a long time. “It didn’t feel real.”
But it was real – and so was the terrible ticking clock Tu was now on.
90 days to find a new job
Tu is in the U.S. on a work visa, and like most work visas, it is tied to Tu’s job. Losing that job meant Tu had 90 days to find a new one, or face having to leave the country.
Tu felt very alone. They didn’t want to tell family or their parents.
“I would rather not worry them,” says Tu.
At Meta, Instagram’s parent company, more than 15% of employees are on a work visa, like Tu.
Meta and other tech companies have been criticized for relying very heavily on workers from overseas. One study from 2018 found that more than 70% of tech workers in Silicon Valley were born in another country.
But advocates of immigration say workers from overseas bring innovation and contribute to making the U.S. the tech leader of the world.
Over the last few months, thousands of immigrants on work visas have been laid off and now have 60 or 90 days to find a new job, or face having to leave the country.
But competition for jobs is intense right now, after a number of layoffs have happened across the tech industry.
Joshua Browder, CEO of the AI start-up Do Not Pay, posted a job opening a few weeks ago, and the response blew him away.
“We had hundreds of people reach out,” he says. “And they were some of the most qualified applicants I’d ever seen.”
Browder says people on work visas are at a disadvantage when they apply to jobs because visas can be costly and complicated for employers.
Also, most companies are feeling cautious right now and don’t want to make hiring decisions quickly.
Browder says that means many hard-working, talented people are left in a desperate position. A lot of them have spent years in the U.S. They have mortgages, social networks and kids in school.
“It’s such a shame that the system is built in the way it is,” he says. “Because if a lot of these candidates have to go back and leave the U.S., we are losing all of these really talented people.”
Checking LinkedIn obsessively
Huy Tu says it’s brutal out there.
“Competing in this market is crazy,” says Tu.
Tu has lived in the U.S. for eight years – their life is here. And Tu is worried 90 days won’t be enough to find something new.
So Tu’s trying to cover all their bases: they’ve applied to over 100 jobs.
“I just feel like I’m in a race and I have to apply to everything I see.”
Not to mention the crushing stress. Tu says it feels dangerous to step away from the computer for even a few minutes.
“I feel very on edge every time I hear the LinkedIn sound,” says Tu. “I feel like I have to respond right away.”
After all, that ping on LinkedIn might be a question from an employer or even a job offer. And Tu needs an offer before Feb. 6. That is when the 90 days are up.
But even if they land a job, Tu can’t imagine ever feeling secure in a job again.
“I think stability is a myth,” says Tu. “Even if I get a job, I don’t think I’ll be able to really sleep for at least a year. I’ll be afraid it will just go away.”
Tu misses the work at Instagram, and also the colleagues and the office. They haven’t been back since getting laid off in the email in November.
Instead, Instagram said it would pack up Tu’s desk and mail their personal items to them as soon as possible, including the little fake plant Tu brought in on the first day of work and the laminated sign: “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”
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