HARTFORD, Conn. -- Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), flanked by laid-off IT workers on Tuesday, spoke about the abuse of the H-1B visa system.
There are 5,669 workers in Connecticut employed under the H-1B program, Blumenthal said at a press conference. "How many of them have displaced American workers? We don't know," he said. "How many of them have been hired instead of American workers? We don't know."
But, he went on, "we know that increasingly" foreign workers are being used to displace U.S. citizens "because they can be employed more cheaply."
Blumenthal's press conference was another sign of the rising political visibility of the H-1B issue. The implications of this attention are unclear.
Legislative reforms are stalled, and discrimination cases in court remain undecided, but the issue may be getting the most attention it has ever received.
At rallies for Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Disney IT workers have spoken about being replaced by foreign labor.
Trump was endorsed by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the head of the Senate immigration subcommittee. That committee has held two hearings during this legislative term on the impact of H-1B visa holders on highly skilled workers.
During the recent GOP candidates debate in Miami, Trump appeared to suggest ending the H-1B program. His platform details H-1B reforms, and the endorsement by Sessions, a leading Republican critic on illegal immigration, may be seen as a sign that Trump is serious. But in some public statements during debates, Trump can seem wobbly on the H-1B issue.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, a Texas senator, once called for a massive H-1B cap increase but has since become an H-1B reformer, proposing a series of restrictions on the visa's use.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) released reform legislation following the Disney layoff. A bipartisan group of 10 senators, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have asked for a federal investigation of the H-1B program.
It's not just senators and presidential candidates who are speaking out. Displaced IT professionals are telling about their experiences of having to train their visa-holding replacements. They are raising questions, and, increasingly, they are doing so in public.
The latest to do so is Craig Diangelo, a longtime employee at Northeast Utilities (now Eversource) until he trained his visa-holding replacement. He was laid off two years ago and has not spoken out about the incident because of a non-disparagement clause in his severance agreement.
The use of the visa at U.S. companies is an "epidemic" that has affected thousands, Diangelo said.
Approximately 200 IT workers at Eversource were laid off after the company hired India-based outsourcers Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services to provide IT services.
The non-disparagement clause in the severance package made former employees cautious about speaking out. But after two years since his layoff, Diangelo said he can no longer be silent.
With Blumenthal looking on, Diangelo said it was important for him to exercise his rights as an American.
"It's come to the point where the story has to get out," said Diangelo, who is calling for changes in the H-1B laws. "People have to stop being afraid of not being able to speak and doing everything anonymously."
Blumenthal has urged the company to drop the non-disparagement clause, which he calls a "gag order."
Eversource has defended itself, in part, by pointing out that its post-merger IT reorganization was needed to modernize its systems, and that it needed outside help to carry out the upgrades.
The utility also said that it only employs three people under a non-immigrant visa program. But Eversource is only describing its direct hires, not its contractor workforce. The contractors it brought in, Infosys and Tata, are typically among the top three largest employers of workers who are in the U.S. on H-1B visas.
According to Albert Lara, an Eversource spokesman, the former employees are free to talk about the organization and the new service model. "There is nothing in any agreement that he signed that would prevent him from doing that," Lara said.
Blumenthal is backing legislation by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that would prevent displacements and would require companies to make a good faith effort to hire U.S. citizens before using visa holders.
Blumenthal also supports legislation to increase the H-1B cap, but only if it comes with visa use restrictions. He wants a comprehensive immigration plan as well.
The Senate Democratic leadership won't support a stand-alone H-1B reform bill unless it's part of a comprehensive immigration reform plan. Republicans are more likely to back a stand-alone H-1B bill. But the tech industry is very influential, the political divisions are bipartisan, and the outcome remains uncertain no matter what party wins in November.
Visa reform may arrive via the courts even if the political process fails. IT workers have filed discrimination complaints in federal and state courts and with federal agencies, but it could be years before this is any resolution.
Even with all the political and legal efforts, there's no certainty any action will derail the forces moving IT jobs overseas.
Abbott Labs is an example. The global healthcare company hired Wipro, an India-based IT services provider, and a major user of H-1B visa-holding workers. Abbott, which is based in Durbin's home state of Illinois, then proceeded with plans to lay off about 150 IT employees and shift some IT work overseas. Abbott IT employees were expected to train their replacements.
But the IT employees took action to try to prevent their replacement and job loss. They contacted Sara Blackwell, an attorney representing former Disney IT employees, and sought her help. Durbin also got involved, and he recently asked Abbott to drop its plan.
"To add insult to injury, the Abbott Labs IT staff who will be laid off will first be forced to train their replacements," Durbin wrote in a letter to Abbott.
Abbott later said that the "affected Abbott IT employees are not being asked to train their replacements." The company also said that 80% of the workers Wipro brings on site will be U.S. citizens.
Abbott's strategy may be to try to avoid discrimination claims and lawsuits by having the IT services firm use a relatively high percentage of U.S. citizens and by not requiring the soon-to-be-laid-off employees to train replacements.
If visa restrictions are enacted, IT services providers may increase reliance on Web-based "knowledge transfer" to avoid having visa holders at a client company's site. There have also been reports of U.S. workers traveling overseas to train replacements on foreign soil.
Abbott's strategy doesn't change the most damaging issue: that U.S. employees are still losing their jobs, and the work is moving overseas.
"It seems to be a misinterpretation of the idiom 'insult to injury,'" said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University, referring to the language in Durbin's letter to Abbott.
"The injury is the lost job. The insult is having to train your replacement," he said. "Remove the insult and you still have the injury."