Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders lashed out at the H-1B visa program Tuesday while campaigning in Anaheim, Calif., the home of Disneyland. He drew attention to Disney's layoff of about 250 IT workers last year after the firm brought in technology contractors that rely heavily on visa users.
Sanders was seizing the opportunity of talking about Disney to a crowd of people that included its employees. But it may well have been an effort to force the visa issue in advance of the California primary on June 7.
Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, who, along with Sanders, is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has been silent on the H-1B issue during this campaign. Her lack of comment was seen as a tacit sign of support for the visa in an op-ed that appeared this month in the Economic Times, a Mumbai, India-based newspaper.
"Disney replaced 250 workers with low-wage foreign workers who came in what is called the H-1B program," said Sanders, to the affirming cheers of the crowd in Anaheim. (Video segment begins at about 23:50).
"So in order to save money, what they did is replace workers," said Sanders. "They got rid of them and brought in other people and had the tech workers train the other people."
It will be hard to avoid the high-skilled immigration issue in California. It's a top policy issue for Silicon Valley's tech giants. But the state is also the home of some high-profile displacements, notably Southern California Edison's use of H-1B contractors and the subsequent cutting of some 500 IT workers. The parent company of the Los Angeles Times, a critic of Edison and the H-1B program, has since hired one of the same India-based contractors the utility used. The newspaper chain's IT employees are training their replacements.
Meanwhile, Sanders highlighted Disney CEO Robert Iger's 2014 total compensation of $46.5 million (It was $44.9 million in 2015) to illustrate a disparity in the workplace.
"That's what we're talking about in a rigged economy," said Sanders, "people working at very low wages while the people on top are doing phenomenally well."
Iger is co-chair of the Partnership for a New American Economy, an organization that advocates for increasing the H-1B visa cap.
If Clinton doesn't raise the issue in the California primary, it's likely that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, will bring it up in the months ahead. Trump sketched out a visa reform position early in the campaign, and has the backing U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the program's top legislative critics.
Disney did not respond immediately when asked for comment about Sanders' remarks. But the company has previously defended itself by pointing to ongoing hiring in its IT department.