In Florida Thursday night, Republican presidential candidates took on the H-1B visa program in a way they have never done before. They said the program is being abused, needs reform and GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, in particular, seemed to recommend ending it.
The attention is due to the layoff last year of Disney IT workers, most who were working in Orlando. Some of those workers had to train visa-holding replacements. Disney laid off between 200 to 300 IT workers after bringing in IT contractors that are heavy users of the visa.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has supported an H-1B cap increase, and has said little about the visa-related IT layoffs at Disney or any other place, offered an extended critique of the H-1B program.
Rubio faulted, in particular, the use of visas by large IT services companies, pointing to firms based in India, in particular. He said H-1B program abuses take jobs from U.S. workers.
When it was his turn to talk about the visa, Trump, the billionaire businessman, began with an admission. "First of all, I know the H-1B very well, and it's something that I frankly use and I shouldn't be allowed to use -- we shouldn't have it," said Trump. He explained himself by saying the visa is available to use and "I'm a businessman."
The frontrunner has sent out confusing signals about the H-1B program.
At last week's debate, Trump said he was "softening" his position on the visa. But immediately following the debate, he issued a statement saying that his remarks were about immigration, and not the non-immigrant H-1B visa.
In that post-debate statement at the time, Trump said: "I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program."
Last night, Trump seemed more focused, certain -- even radical. He talked about ending the visa. "It's very bad for our workers and it's unfair for workers and we should end it," said Trump.
"Very importantly, the Disney workers endorsed me," said Trump. "They said he is the only one that's going to be able to fix it, because it's a mess."
The Democrats, by contrast, have had little to say about the controversial program.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, is a critic of the visa program, and joined a bipartisan group of 10 senators last year seeking an investigation into its use after IT layoffs at Southern California Edison.
But former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn't raise the H-1B visa as an issue. In debates, both Sanders and Clinton have kept the focus on comprehensive immigration reform.
On the GOP side, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said little about the visa program at Thursday's debate in Miami. But he didn't have to. In last week's debate he said that "abuse of the H-1B program has been rampant."
Cruz, as well as Trump, have issued platforms calling for H-1B visa program reforms.
The Disney IT layoffs prompted U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to introduce legislation seeking program restrictions. Rubio has not offered any legislation, even though the job cuts took place in his home state.
At a recent Trump rally, one former Disney IT worker who took the stage, Dena Moore, said she trained a visa-holding replacement and was critical of Rubio. "What a great disappointment Marco Rubio is," she said.
At Thursday's debate, Washington Times reporter Stephen Dinan asked Rubio about Disney, and said that "some of the Americans even had to train their own replacements."
"You support increasing the H-1B visa program that made it possible to bring in these foreign workers. Doesn't this program take jobs away from Americans?" asked Dinan.
"If it's being abused the way Disney did," said Rubio. "It is illegal now under that program to use it to replace American workers. Under that program, you have to prove not only that you're not replacing Americans, but that you've tried to hire Americans."
In reality, the H-1B program does allow firms to easily replace U.S. workers, thanks to program loopholes. The employers bring in contractors that rely heavily of visa workers. These IT services firms are required make a good faith effort to hire U.S. workers, but not if the H-1B worker is paid at least $60,000 or has a master's degree.
Rubio, in the debate, acknowledged the problem with contractors, citing India-based firms, in particular.
"What I argue is that no consulting business such as that should be allowed to hoard up all these visas," said Rubio, adding that visas "should only be available for companies to use to directly hire workers and that we should be stricter in how we enforce it."