Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, on Monday criticized the replacement of U.S. IT workers with foreign labor but stopped short of offering a plan to fix it.
In a videotaped interview with Vox published Monday, Clinton appears empathetic and sympathetic to IT workers who have trained their foreign replacements as a condition of severance. She mentioned IT layoffs at Disney, specifically.
"The many stories of people training their replacements from some foreign country are heartbreaking, and it is obviously a cost-cutting measure to be able to pay people less than what you would pay an American worker," said Clinton in the interview.
A major complaint Clinton said she now hears about is "how callous and insensitive" employers have become.
But other than to express concern about the workers, it was unclear what Clinton was trying to accomplish in the interview. There was no discussion of specific reforms to attack the problems she cited, leaving critics of the H-1B visa program uncertain about her stance on the issue.
Clinton seemed to acknowledge that the public is alert to the issue and that "everybody, with six degrees of separation either knows or thinks they know" someone replaced by foreign labor. But she may have also minimized the problem, according to critics.
Said Clinton: "It's hard to argue an economic analytics abstraction that really it's not that much job displacement, and, you know, the overall economy is better," in citing the case for temporary visa holders made by supporters. "It's really hard when you are the one who has lost the job, when you are at Disney in Orlando and you are told to train your successors."
Disney cut about 250 workers early last year after bringing in offshore contracting firms. IT workers complained about having to train foreign replacements.
Missing the larger picture?
After discussing the problem faced by Disney's IT workers, Clinton immediately mentioned how construction workers, replaced by undocumented workers, face something similar.
Keith Barrett, a former IT worker Disney who was among those replaced by contractors, was not happy with Clinton's comments, which he called "depressing."
"She starts off as if she understands the problem, but then dismisses it as collateral damage not of significant volume to address, and blends in the problem of illegal immigrant labor, which is mostly working in unskilled labor," said Barrett.
Clinton is "ignoring that not only are highly skilled employed Americans being fired by the tens of thousands every year due to H-1B labor, many are older age-protected people," said Barrett. "Plus, it's preventing qualified people from getting hired."
Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University, said Clinton is "downplaying the scale and scope of the problem. The job displacement isn't just real, it is large in scale and scope. And its impacts are amplified by the offshoring of some of that work. So, on key facts here she is very misinformed."
Hira said that it is "good to hear" that Clinton "is aware of the Disney case and the abuse happening with visas. But her policy statement on immigration never mentions it, so this begs the question where she specifically stands on guestworker visa reforms."
Those reforms include requiring U.S. worker preference in hiring, raising wage levels so guestworkers aren't hired because they're cheaper than Americans, and preventing the displacement of Americans.
"So, is she supporting H-1B and L-1 and OPT (Optional Practical Training) reforms? Or isn't she?" said Hira, "Or is reform simply a chip to be bargained away to the tech industry in exchange for its support for comprehensive immigration reform -- a way to keep the 'pressure' on the technology industry to use her words?"
Hira called Clinton's remarks a positive first step, but also sees her delaying a commitment to a solution. It's a "way to pander without making a hard promise," he said.
A good first step
Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, said Clinton "rightly seemed concerned that H-1B workers can be vastly underpaid and are tied to their employers -- she said workers on visas are more 'compliant' because they want to stay in the country, and are therefore unlikely to complain when things go wrong or if they aren't paid fairly."
Costa said she "was explicit about 'how callous and insensitive American corporations have become to their American workers' because they are being used to replace skilled, incumbent U.S. workers by outsourcing companies after being forced to train their own replacements.
"We haven't seen many elected Democrats say these things and in such clear terms -- which I think makes it significant -- and might encourage others in her party to speak out about the flawed nature of guestworker programs and the abuses that occur," said Costa.
Costa said "it's really the first time" he has seen the former Secretary of State "offer a detailed opinion on immigration that was this balanced and focused on having an immigration system that is fair to, and seeks to protect, U.S. workers and the undocumented workers and guestworkers for whom enforcing labor rights is often impossible."
Some Republicans cited the Disney layoff in one of the presidential debates, and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has outlined a specific H-1B visa reform proposal. It was drafted with the help of leading Senate visa critics, including U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the first Senator to endorse Trump for president.
Still needed: A solution
Republicans and Democrats have offered bipartisan bills over the years to reform the H-1B visa program and to make it harder to replace U.S. workers. But those efforts have been stymied by proponents of comprehensive immigration reform, who don't want to lose tech industry support for broader reform.
If Clinton supports a stand-alone H-1B reform bill, she didn't suggest that in this interview. She only discussed comprehensive immigration reform.
John Miano, a programmer who became an attorney and has sued the government over its expansion of Optional Practical Training program, said "American workers are at the bottom" of Clinton's priority list, and said the strategy is to hold U.S. workers "hostage" to get amnesty for illegal aliens.
Kim Berry, president of the Programmer's Guild, said that Clinton's comments show that she understands the negative impact that immigrants -- both illegal and visa holders that displace tech workers -- can have on U.S. workers.
"What I did not hear was her proposal to fix the problem," said Berry. "Is she willing to call for suspension and reform of the H-1B program? Is she willing to oppose comprehensive immigration reform 'amnesty,' which would give millions of low-skilled American jobs to illegal immigrants?"
Or is Clinton "merely offering some pity for the victims of the policies that she has, and will continue, to support?"
Leo Perrero, a former Disney IT worker who trained his replacement, said "we have finally witnessed Hilary Clinton commenting on the H-1B abuses happening all over the country. This is a good thing that more Americans are being educated and that now both presidential candidates are speaking out on this topic."
But, Perrero said, even after all the recent attention on the H-1B visa, there are three reform bills "sitting on the desks of our senators and they appear to be going nowhere and will expire at the end of this Congress in January if no action is taken."
Those bills include a longstanding effort by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to require employers "to first make a good faith effort to recruit American workers" before bringing in a visa worker.