At a congressional hearing today on the H-1B visa's impact on high-skilled workers, the first person to testify was Leo Perrero, a former Disney IT worker. He was overcome with emotion for parts of it, pausing to gather himself as he told the story of how he was replaced by a foreign visa holder.
It was a hearing with an emotional punch.
Perrero testified after Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) displayed a giant photo of small American flags, which were flown indoors by IT workers at Northeast Utilities (now Eversource Energy).
Eversource Energy IT workers "were forced to train their foreign replacements -- and this was done, apparently," within the current law, said Sessions.
The photo, which was first published in Computerworld, was sent to the committee by a former IT worker at Eversource. The employee was not identified because of legal restrictions in the person's severance agreement.
The only way the employees "could make a statement was by placing small American flags outside of cubicles," said Sessions.
As the IT workers were replaced, Sessions reported, the employee said " 'the flags disappeared just as we did.' "
For his part, Perrero wanted lawmakers to understand how utterly shocked he was. He detailed his good reviews while at Disney. He felt secure in his accomplishments.
An internal meeting was called and Perrero gathered with co-workers, expecting good news of some sort. Instead, they were notified that had 90 days remaining at Disney and would be laid off on Jan. 30, 2015. But before that happened, they would be training their foreign replacements.
Perrero wondered how he would tell his family that "I would soon be living on unemployment."
Perrero paused. The room was still as the audience waited for him to continue.
"Later that same day I remember very clearly going to the local church pumpkin sale and having to tell the kids that we could not buy any because my job was going over to a foreign worker," he said.
"How could it be that everybody who hears about Disney and the like ... are completely shocked," said Perrero. "Yet lawmakers continue to evade the topic and take no action."
One person with a different experience with foreign workers was Mark O'Neill, the CTO of Jackthreads, an online retailer. He argued that there is a need for more skilled workers.
Competition is so fierce for developers "that my developers' starting salaries have risen by 50% in the last eight years," said O'Neill, and "senior positions command compensation that meets or exceeds even that of United States Senators." (That compensation is now at $174,000/year.)
Sessions said he sees "no reason to end this [H-1B] program," but he wants a system that favors the most highly qualified.
Most of the comments spoke to frustration around the issue. John Miano, a programmer who became an attorney and was representing the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, illustrated that frustration in a quip. "The only way this is going to get fixed is by executive order from President Trump," he said.
At the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), called Eversource Energy's outsourcing "extraordinarily troubling"; he has asked for a federal investigation.
Sessions is a leading advocate for reform of the H-1B visa. He has influenced the platform of Donald Trump, the billionaire developer who is leading the Republicans for the presidential nomination, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), another presidential candidate, who has reversed his position on the H-1B visa. Sessions has co-sponsored a reform bill with Cruz.
The hearing was an opportunity to bring new attention to the issue in an election year.
Academic policy experts spoke on each side of the debate. These were mostly familiar arguments covering heavily researched areas.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), made it clear at the hearing that he was holding out for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, similar to the 2013 bill that was approved by the Senate but not the House.
"It's hard to believe this bill was turned down," said Schumer.