President Donald Trump speaks at the Snap-on Inc. headquarterson Tuesday in Kenosha, Wis., where he signed the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

What ‘60 Minutes’ didn’t say about H-1B visas

CBS’s “60 Minutes” program recently did a segment on how IT jobs are disappearing to other countries and how H-1B workers are displacing American IT workers — some of whom have worked at their jobs for decades.

Sarah Blackwell, a Florida attorney, was interviewed for the program and stated categorically, “When you tell someone that the real reason for getting rid of these jobs is for cheap, foreign labor, that should offend everyone.”

I agree, but Blackwell doesn’t quite say who to place the blame on.

The program delivers its heart-rending message of real people losing real jobs and being forced to train their replacements. The analogy used was to dig one’s own grave. As President Donald Trump said in one of his campaign speeches, “… they won’t give you your severance pay unless you train the people that are replacing you. I mean, that’s, that’s actually demeaning, maybe more than anything else.”

I can well understand how humiliating the experience can be. Job security really means family stability. Besides the economic consequence of losing a job, there is significant social impact with families being put in disarray. Looking for a job at a certain age can be punishing, frustrating and often requiring huge compromises on the part of the job-seeker.

It is interesting that “60 Minutes” managed to find an H-1B worker to appear before the camera in disguise. Though, there were several red flags in the interview of this “replacement worker,” Rajesh, who couldn’t seem to speak a word of English and needed a translator. How is Rajesh working in the United States at a “major Wall Street bank” without the capability to converse in English?

“The American workers lose their job and they also cry while leaving their job. If I lose my job, I can go back to India, but where can they go?” Rajesh is believed to have said.

It’s important to convey the emotion with which these sentiments are delivered in the first place, and in the translator’s rendition, something was lost. Was the reference to crying sarcastic or empathetic? What does it mean to go back to India? Are there ample jobs available in India for an IT worker like Rajesh? If so, why is he here?

The obvious implication is that if an American worker loses his job in America, there aren’t jobs available for him or her here. Do we have numbers for these? How soon do laid-off IT workers get re-hired? The “60 Minutes” reporting resulted in more questions than answers.

Yes, IT workers are getting laid off by companies like UC San Francisco and Disney. Yes, companies are doing this because of cost-savings. Yes, lower-cost IT workers are hired from other countries as replacements. But what most media reports on H-1B misuse fail to address is where to put the blame. Most of the rhetoric seems to blame the Indian H-1B worker, and I find that egregious and careless, because it sets a dangerous precedent of pitting communities against each other. More and more hate crimes and hate incidents are being reported against Indians and Indian Americans because of this failure to link the crime to the criminal.

Bill Whitaker, a “60 Minutes” correspondent, interviewed Craig D’Angelo, who was laid off from his job at Eversource and was also instructed to train his replacement — called a “knowledge transfer” — before he left. I was particularly struck by what D’Angelo told Whitaker. “I didn’t get laid off for lack of work, I got laid off because somebody cheaper could do my job. … You don’t want to have any animosity toward them [the replacement hire] because they’re looking for a better way of life.”

D’Angelo understood the decisions that corporations make victimize the laid-off worker as well as the hired foreign worker. These workers from India have no idea what or who they are replacing. They are merely told to learn the job, as Rajesh intimated. They work for a fraction of the cost, have little or no benefits and end up facing a hostile climate.

The blame should lie solely and squarely on U.S. companies and their singular focus on their bottom line, outsourcing companies that make no attempt to hire workers from America, and Congress’ inability to plug the loopholes in our immigration laws that allow for this kind of misuse to happen.

This April, the H-1B application deadline came and went without any change to the H-1B policy. Though the number of H-1B applications went down from 236,000 last year to 199,000 this year, the demand still is leagues beyond the 85,000 limit.

As I write this, President Trump has just finished signing the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order with great flourish and fanfare in Kenosha, Wis. In his speech, Trump targeted how the H-1Bs are allotted: “Today, H-1Bs are allotted in a totally random lottery and that’s wrong. Instead, they should be given to the most skilled and highest paid applicants and should never be used to replace American workers.”

The signed order asks the Homeland Security and Labor, Justice and State departments to review the H-1B process and suggest recommendations. Why we need an executive order to do this when virtually everyone in Congress agrees that there needs to be a closer examination of the H-1B process is a mystery to me.

But so be it. There is to be a review and there are to be recommendations. In the meantime, it’s business as usual.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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