In three debates, Clinton and Trump ignore H-1B visa issue

Trump had the most to gain by raising what may be tech's most controversial issue

outsourcing ts
Credit: Thinkstock

In three presidential debates, including the final one Wednesday night, the two candidates did not talk about the H-1B visa program. This was the last opportunity for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to compare and contrast what may be tech's most controversial issue.

The portion of the debate set aside Wednesday night for immigration quickly shifted to a discussion about hacked emails and Kremlin meddling. Fox New anchor Chris Wallace may be criticized for allowing this portion of the debate to run off the rails, but the person who deserves the most blame is Trump, the Republican nominee.

Trump had everything to gain by raising the temporary visa issue and its use in offshore outsourcing. The tech industry has thrown its financial support behind Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

It's so bad for Trump in Silicon Valley that Meg Whitman, the Hewlett-Packard Enterprise CEO and one-time Republican candidate for governor in California, announced her support for Clinton. For sure, Trump is getting the backing of Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder, but in this election, Thiel is an outlier among his Silicon Valley peers.

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 after at a recent Trump rally where Perrero spoke of his experience of being laid off last year after training his visa-holding replacement. 

In contrast, Clinton has not addressed the visa's use in the offshoring, or whether the H-1B program needs reform. Trump lost an opportunity to challenge Clinton here and discuss her prior support of the visa.

Trump delivered some of his bluntest remarks in this campaign about the H-1B visa program in an Oct. 13 speech in Columbus, Ohio. It was dubbed his "millennial policy" speech.

Trump called the outsourcing of jobs overseas for "college educated kids" a "tremendous threat."

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

Clinton has called it "heartbreaking" when IT workers are put in the position of training foreign replacements, but she has not said whether she believes the visa program needs reform.

Clinton backs comprehensive immigration reform and her strategy will be familiar. The tech industry wants the H-1B cap raised, but congressional supporters of comprehensive immigration reform will not seek substantive changes to the visa independent of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. They don't want tech support for broad immigration reform to peel away.

Unlike Clinton, Trump, as president, would likely be receptive to a separate H-1B reform bill. Trump's main ally in Congress on this issue is Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading H-1B critic and the first senator to support Trump.

But the H-1B fight doesn't fall on party lines and almost any reform bill is likely to be a product that's unsatisfying to all sides, including a sprinkling of loopholes that even Trump will likely have to accept.

The real reason why the H-1B visa wasn't raised in this presidential debate, or any of the presidential debates over the last dozen years or so, may be that it's just a niche issue. Both Clinton and Trump may have decided there's no point in discussing this issue on a national stage.

Within the tech sector and among affected IT workers, passions about the visa run high, but outside this sector, most of the country is probably only vaguely aware of it.

This story, "In three debates, Clinton and Trump ignore H-1B visa issue" was originally published by Computerworld.

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