When the vast majority of OpenAI’s hundreds of employees signed an open letter on Monday calling for the board to resign and reinstate former CEO Sam Altman or face their own mass resignations, one group of staff did so with more at stake: immigrant visa holders.
At least 743 of OpenAI’s approximately 750 staff had signed within a few hours, according to one of the letter’s organizers, who posted the update on X, the social site formerly called Twitter. Among the employees who affirmed they’d participated on X were several who noted their immigration status might be put at risk.
“I am on an H-1B, in the process of getting my green card and relocating my family to the U.S. Me and many other colleagues in a similar situation have signed this letter,” wrote Reiichiro Nakano, a member of the technical staff since 2020 and previously a software engineer in Tokyo, per his LinkedIn profile. “I do not know what will happen next, but I am confident we will be taken care of. The Board should resign.”
“I’m on a research visa, too, that I will lose if I resign,” said Boris Power, the company’s head of applied research who joined in 202 from Accenture. “These are details — onwards with the mission,” he added, with a rocket ship emoji. Neither responded to comment requests.
In the three years up to June 2023, OpenAI sponsored H-1B visas for 38 employee roles to legally work in the U.S., according to data from the Department of Labor. It was unclear how many of those people still worked at the company.
Employees who resign from OpenAI face additional risks of complication to their immigration status, experts said — even should they join Microsoft, the destination announced by CEO Satya Nadella for Altman, former president Greg Brockman and an unspecified number of colleagues. (Though reports suggested on Monday that Altman’s role hasn’t been fully solidified as the pressure at OpenAI continued.)
“It’s a lot more brave to be an immigrant here, knowing that you only have 60 days to find a new job or leave the country, and still fight for what you believe in,” said Atal Agarwal, founder of Immigrant First, a program helping with immigration processes. “These people might have to change their entire lives.”
Legal paperwork for renewals can easily run $10,000, said Agarwal, who was born in India and recently went through the process after being laid off from eHealth a year ago. (He ultimately turned to OpenAI’s own GPT-4 generative AI model to help write his forms.) Founders of one startup, he added without naming it, recently spent $150,000 of their $500,000 fundraise from investors simply to secure coveted O-1 visas, earmarked for those with “extraordinary ability” and the most common alternative for tech workers to an H-1B. (Other research visas include the EB1-A and EB-2.)
Employees who quit OpenAI could potentially switch to a tourist visa to buy more time, but would face a “countdown clock,” said Xiao Wang, CEO of Boundless Immigration, a startup that uses software to help employees and companies with immigration processes. “It adds an incredible amount of burden and stress to people in the holiday season.”
Immigration concerns can mean that employees on visas are less likely to leave in a mass-quitting scenario like OpenAI’s. The biggest risk would be a new employer failing to file paperwork on time, leading to a reset to the green card process. The wait time for Indian employees to get such status, Wang noted, can extend past 10 years.
Microsoft, where CEO Satya Nadella is an immigrant who was once on an H-1B visa himself, has been outspoken in the past about immigration reform, and maintains a dedicated immigration portal for employees, per its website. Asked by Forbes if Microsoft had a plan for any visa holder OpenAI staff planning to join with Altman, a spokesperson declined to comment.
But big tech companies like Microsoft are often winners in such a situation, because they’re known to have codified processes in place, experts said. One complicating factor: companies that have had layoffs for a certain family of jobs can’t sponsor green cards for that same job family for six months, Wang said. Microsoft announced layoffs in July, although they did not appear to be in relevant roles for OpenAI’s visa holders, mostly generically described as “members of technical staff.”
Update: This story has been updated with the latest count of employee signatures as of 6:30 pm ET.