Trump tapped the viral anger over H-1B use

A President Trump will be in a powerful position to restrict temporary visa use, raising alarms in Silicon Valley and India

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President-elect Donald Trump realized early in his campaign that U.S. IT workers were angry over training foreign visa-holding replacements. He knew this anger was volcanic.

Trump is the first major U.S. presidential candidate in this race -- or any previous presidential race -- to focus on the use of the H-1B visa to displace IT workers. He asked former Disney IT employees, upset over having to train foreign replacements, to speak at his rallies.

"The fact is that Americans are losing their jobs to foreigners," said Dena Moore, a former Disney IT worker at a Trump rally in Alabama in February. "I believe Mr. Trump is for Americans first."

trump sessions perrero h-1b Photo courtesy of Leo Perrero

Leo Perrero, center, a former Disney IT employee, is flanked by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), left, and presidential candidate Donald Trump at a Trump rally where Perrero spoke of his experience of being laid off last year after training his visa-holding replacement.


Trump teamed up with Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to draft an H-1B platform that makes the visa more expensive to use and protects U.S. workers from displacement. Sessions, who heads the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, was the first senator to endorse Trump.

Trump didn't raise the H-1B issue often in his speeches and during one debate appeared to waver in his support for reform, but for the most part, he was consistent.

Trump, in a speech last month in Ohio directed at millennial-age voters, called the outsourcing of jobs for "college-educated kids" a "tremendous threat."

"Companies are importing low-wage workers on H-1B visas to take jobs from young college-trained Americans," he said at this rally. "You've been seeing that and you've been hearing that. We will protect these jobs for all Americans, believe me."

As president, Trump might be able to work with a bipartisan group of senators who want to see H-1B program reforms. But any reform effort will face powerful and entrenched opposition in Congress from members of both parties. The business opposition will be tremendous.

Trump has not held office and has no real experience in working with Congress. There will be questions, doubt and skepticism about his ability to maintain his campaign resolve as president. Silicon Valley will fight hard, and if an H-1B bill leaves Congress and reaches the president's desk, the visa reforms will likely be aimed at India-based IT services companies that rely heavily on temporary visas.

A President Trump will have powers independent of Congress to change visa programs. The Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension, for instance, was created by executive order under the President George W. Bush administration and expanded by President Barack Obama.

The OPT program allows STEM students on an F-1 visa to work in the U.S. for up to three years without an H-1B visa. Critics have called it a backdoor H-1B visa, and it could be changed by the president's signature.

Curbing the H-1B visa doesn't eliminate offshore outsourcing. Visa restrictions may complicate the ability of the IT services industry to work in the U.S., but they may have little impact on offshore outsourcing. Business models will adjust. The bigger problem facing Trump is making it more attractive for firms to keep the jobs in the U.S.

In dealing with Congress on the H-1B issue, Sessions will play a key role.

Sessions has drawn repeated attention to the use of H-1B workers to replace U.S. IT workers, and made it a mission to give "voice" to displaced workers. His committee reached out to affected workers at Southern California Edison and other companies and heard testimony from one displaced former IT employee at Disney.

Several years ago, Sessions delivered a message to his colleagues that may chill Silicon Valley in the wake of Trump's win.

"The tech industry's promotion of expanded temporary visas -- such as the H-1B -- and green cards is driven by its desire for cheap, young and immobile labor," Sessions wrote in a memo to fellow lawmakers in 2013.

Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton never once mentioned the H-1B issue in this campaign, but she saw the problem.

Clinton, in an interview with Vox, said that "everybody with six degrees of separation either knows or thinks they know someone who knows somebody who lost a job to an undocumented worker or to a worker brought over on a visa to do their job. There's just a lot of churn that suggests this is a real problem."

What Clinton described is the definition of viral, and she was right. For nearly 25 years, IT workers have been complaining of training their foreign replacements and the anger had indeed gone viral. Trump used that, Clinton did not.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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