The H-1B visa issue rarely surfaces during presidential races, and that's one thing that makes the entrance of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) into the 2016 presidential race interesting.
As a senator, Sanders does not have a lot of political clout. He's an independent socialist whose major campaign contributors are unions. But Sanders this week announced he's running for the Democratic nomination for president, a move that could raise the visibility of the H-1B visa program as a national issue.
Sanders is skeptical of the H-1B program, and has lambasted tech companies for hiring visa holders at the same time they're cutting other staffers. He's especially critical of the visa's use by providers of IT services that are headquartered overseas.
"Last year, the top 10 employers of H-1B guest workers were all offshore outsourcing companies," Sanders said in a Senate speech in 2013. "These firms are responsible for shipping large numbers of American information technology jobs to India and other countries."
The points raised by Sanders echo those made by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who chairs the Senate's Immigration subcommittee. In fact, Sanders was one of 10 senators who signed a recent letter by Sessions and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to several federal departments seeking an investigation into H-1B use.
Sanders has said that he does accept, with limitations, the high-tech industry's argument "that they need the H-1B program so they can hire the best and the brightest science, technology, engineering and math workers in the world, and that there are not enough qualified American workers in these fields. In some cases -- let me be very honest -- I think that is true."
There are some companies "in some parts of the country that are unable to attract American workers to do the jobs that are needed," said Sanders. But he has also cited a Government Accountability Office report that states that just over half of the H-1B workers are employed in entry-level jobs. And he has cited other studies that suggest that H-1B workers are paid less than U.S. citizens in similar positions.
If Sanders can pick up enough support to become a true national candidate, he could stand in sharp contrast to his current chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, the onetime Democratic senator from New York and former secretary of state under President Barack Obama. Clinton has previously voiced support for an increase in the cap on H-1B visas.
Sanders is more likely than other candidates to raise the H-1B issue. For candidates who support raising the cap, the only real upside to discussing the H-1B visa program is as a way to solicit donations from the tech industry. This issue, otherwise, is far too polarizing among tech workers to make championing a cap increase something to remind voters about.
In speeches and debates, and in meetings with voters, Sanders could bring the H-1B visa issue to a broader audience and create potentially uncomfortable moments for his rivals.