The H-1B visa issue rarely surfaces during presidential races, and that's what makes the entrance by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) into the 2016 presidential race so 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 as a national issue.
Sanders is very skeptical of the H-1B program, and has lambasted tech firms for hiring visa workers at the same time they're cutting staff. He's especially critical of the visa's use in offshore outsourcing.
"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. Jess 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 does accept, with limitations, high-tech industry arguments "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 also cites a Government Accountability Office report that said just over half of the H-1B workers are employed in entry-level jobs. He cites other studies that suggest H-1B workers are paid less than similarly employed U.S. workers.
If Sanders can pick up enough support to become a true national candidate, he could stand in sharp contrast to his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, the one-time Democratic senator from New York and former secretary of state under President Barack Obama. Clinton has previously voiced support for an H-1B hike.
Sanders is more likely than other candidates to raise the issue. The only real upside to the H-1B visa for candidates that support raising the cap is as a signal to the tech industry for donations. This issue, otherwise, is far too polarizing among tech workers to make championing a cap increase something to routinely remind voters about.
In speeches, debates and in meetings with voters, Sanders could bring the visa issue to a broader audience and create potentially uncomfortable moments for his rivals.
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