'Sold Out' offers a new look at the H-1B debate

Book about tech’s most controversial issue arrives at a pivotal time in American politics

The 2016 presidential contest may the first election to focus on the impact of the H-1B visa program on the U.S. workforce. The signs so far are good that the candidates -- Democrat and Republican, alike -- are willing to talk about it. There may even be rewards at the ballot box for office seekers who make the visa an issue.

The H-1B visa is 25 years old this month and IT workers have been training their visa-holding replacements for many of those years. The reservoir of angst and anger about this runs deep and wide. It's also been largely untapped by presidential candidates in both parties, who, until this year, ignored the issue.

That's why the release of Sold Out: How High-Tech Billionaires and Bipartisan Beltway Crapweasels Are Screwing America's Best and Brightest Workers (Simon & Schuster Audio/Mercury Ink, 2015) is well-timed and needed. It's written by Michelle Malkin, a widely read blogger, syndicated columnist and author, and John Miano, a programmer and founder of the Programmer's Guild,who became an attorney. Both are experts on immigration issues. Malkin, is a New York Times bestselling author on broader immigration policy. Miano has been challenging U.S. high-skill immigration policies in court. They make a great writing team.

Sold Out cover Sold Out

The book, released this week, combines a rich selection of anecdotes, interviews with affected workers and myth-busting policy analysis. Those familiar with the H-1B issue will appreciate its depth and ample documentation. But the book seeks out a broad audience, and its storytelling brings the human impact of U.S. policy to life.

Sold out clearly has a point a view about the program (crapweasels, for instance), but it backs up its assertions and gives H-1B supporters a high threshold to cross.

A serious argument in defense of the visa program requires explaining how America gains when a U.S. worker is replaced by foreign visa holder hired to do the exact same job. If you are going to justify the H-1B program, then you have to defend firms that force their employees (no severance otherwise) to train their replacements. That may be the point here. This book lays bare the replacement process, the broad use of the H-1B visa by the IT offshore outsourcing industry, and the lobbying effort in Washington to minimalize the visa's use in displacing U.S. workers.

The politics around the program are fascinating. Its dividing lines aren't based on party affiliations. That's evident in this presidential race, particularly among the Republican contestants. Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman seeking the nomination, has made H-1B reforms a centerpiece of his immigration policy. On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, is a strong critic of the program as well.

Malkin, in an interview, identifies herself as a conservative blogger, but doesn't see the H-1B issue as shaped around partisan lines. That's evident in the book's sourcing. It draws from a wide range of resources, including the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal leaning think tank that Malkin praises for its work on this issue.

"In the end, I really don't care about party affiliations, because many people are synthesizing all of the facts and information and coming to their own independent conclusions," said Malkin. She believes that informed politicians, no matter what party, can have "a principled epiphany" about the issue.

Malkin also believes the visa is gaining traction as an issue with presidential candidates because of attention from the tech press, blogs and activists groups. "All of this, I think, is creating the perfect storm for putting this issue out there in a really huge way," she said.

People are "fed up with both parties' lip service to the American middle class," she said.

Though the book focuses on the H-1B visa, it is also about the plight of IT workers. "The book, in large part, pays homage to those workers," said Malkin.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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