Ahead of Senate's H-1B hearing, a look at the early warnings

In 1995, then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich feared the H-1B program could inflict real harm; here’s what he says now

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In 1995, then U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich warned Congress about the H-1B program. Stories of IT workers training foreign replacements were already emerging, even though the visa program was just about five years old.

The H-1B program has an "unknowably large potential," Reich told a Senate committee some 20 years ago, to inflict "real competitive harm on skilled U.S workers."

Reich's efforts changed nothing. Three years after he testified, in 1998, Congress raised the H-1B cap.

The Senate Immigration Subcommittee is holding a hearing Thursday to consider the impact of the H-1B visa program on high-skilled workers. A Disney IT worker who lost his job last year, Leo Perrero, will tell his story to the committee.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in 2008.

Reich won't be testifying, but if he were to do so, this is what he would tell lawmakers:

"I'd say the program has become just another way for Big Tech to keep wages down," Reich said in an email response to a question from Computerworld. "It was originally conceived as a means of getting into the U.S. specific skills in very short supply, which Americans didn't have or for which they couldn't be readily trained," said Reich. "That's not what it has morphed into."

Even in 1995, problems with the H-1B program were coming into focus.

In his Senate testimony then, Reich discussed AIG, an insurance company that laid off about 250 IT workers after bringing in a visa-using contractor. Among the U.S. workers who lost a job was Linda Kilcrease, a programmer who trained her foreign replacement. Afterward, she became active on the issue.

"I felt somebody has to put a face to this," said Kilcrease, who spoke at a news conference in Washington and appeared on CNN and the CBS Evening News.

Despite all the attention on the AIG layoffs and others, it is "hard to believe we continue to be damaged by the same visa laws," said Kilcrease, who returned to IT work after her layoff and is now retired.

But Kilcrease believes offshore outsourcing is affecting politics. "It's not just a few people who have lost their jobs, it's now a lot of people," she said.

The anger is particularly seen in the candidacies of Donald Trump, the billionaire developer who is leading the race for the GOP presidential nomination, and from Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is seeking the Democratic nomination. Both want the H-1B visa program reformed.

"Who could be more different, who could be more opposite," said Kilcrease of Trump and Sanders. But together they probably "represent all the unhappiness with our economy."

The AIG layoffs in 1994 were among the early H-1B-related incidents, and it "came as quite a shock," said John Miano, a former programmer, longtime activist and now attorney. "Most people believe that you had to show you [could] not find an American before you hired a foreign worker."

Miano recently co-authored a just-published book about the H-1B visa program with columnist Michelle Malkin, Sold Out. "How was it possible then for companies to fire Americans and replace them with foreign workers?" he said.

Patricia Fluno, who testified before Senate and House committees in 2003, was replaced by a foreign worker at Siemens and said the public attention IT workers bring to the issue can make a difference.

"Make as much noise as possible," said Fluno, because when companies are looking at one IT department to move offshore, "they are looking at all IT departments."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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