Trump's election sets stage for H-1B reform

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a harsh critic of the visa program, to play leading administration role

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

President-elect Donald Trump gave laid-off IT workers something his rival, Hillary Clinton, did not during the campaign: Attention and a promise to reform the H-1B visa program.

The IT workers that Trump wanted to appeal to don't work for startups, Google, Facebook or Microsoft. They run IT systems at insurance firms, banks, utilities and retailers. They live in Rust Belt cities and in New York City, but are too spread out for pollsters to measure.

Trump recognized that IT workers are aggrieved and so did Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who worked with the president-elect on this issue. Sessions, after being appointed in early 2015 as the chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee, set out to become "the voice of the American IT workers who are being replaced with guest workers."

Sessions emerged as one of the visa program's harshest critics. He is now set to play a major role in a Trump administration.

Trump has appointed Sessions' chief counsel, Danielle Cutrona, to head his immigration policy transition team. Sessions is reportedly being considered to head the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service), Department of Justice (which can investigate discrimination complaints), or the Department of Defense.

"Trump was the only candidate to invite me to share my horrific Disney story at his rallies, and Jeff Sessions was the only senator to invite me to testify at a Senate hearing," said Leo Perrero, a former IT worker at Disney who trained a visa-holding replacement. Disney laid off somewhere between 200 and 300 IT workers after hiring H-1B using contractors.

With Republicans in control of the Congress as well, Perrero said, "I am very optimistic that action will finally be taken."

After Southern California Edison (SCE) replaced a major part of its IT staff last year, Sessions took to the Senate floor and read Computerworld's news account of the displacement into the record. He invited leading H-1B critics to testify.

A poster-sized photograph showing American flags in the cubicles of soon-to-be laid off workers at Northeast Utilities, since named Eversource, was displayed at another immigration committee hearing. The flags were raised in protest by the utility's IT employees.

Brian Buchanan, a former senior IT staffer at SCE who also trained a visa-holding replacement, voted for Trump. He wants to see big changes to the visa program. But he is skeptical about the final outcome.

"Everyone including Trump says they're gonna fix this," said Buchanan, "but yet it just keeps on going and getting worse. We need to take back these jobs and give them to unemployed Americans. There are millions of Americans that would benefit if we ended these programs, but the lobbyists, elite, special interests and politicians have a vested financial interest in keeping Americans wages low and replacing us whenever they can."

What Buchanan wants to see is elimination of the H-1B program, because he believes it can't be fixed. "Every time government tries to fix broken programs, they make it far worse," he said.

To prevent what happened at Edison, Buchanan said U.S. firms should be liable for any contractor that uses H-1B visa workers to replace American workers. He also wants higher wages for visa workers, and believes the Trump administration should rescind President Barack Obama's executive order giving the spouses of some H-1B workers the ability to work. He has been part of a lawsuit fighting the Obama move.

The H-1B program "was only supposed to be used for an unfilled job that you couldn't find an American worker for," said Buchanan.

Reform of the H-1B program will face considerable opposition in Congress. It is an issue that transcends party lines. When longtime H-1B critic Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) tried to amend the 2013 Senate comprehensive immigration bill with U.S. worker protections, his chief opponent was a fellow Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch, of Utah.

But Trump, as president, will have executive powers to force changes in the program. And with Sessions set to play a prominent role in the administration, Silicon Valley faces a difficult fight. Whether the risk of IT worker displacement recedes, remains to the seen.

Dawn Casey, an IT worker whose Twitter account states that she trained her foreign replacement, tweeted her joy on the night of Trump's victory. "I think his election is very important to the H-1B issue. Trump will put Americans first and he will bring back jobs," she wrote.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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