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H-1B visas and US Presidential Candidates: A primer

The closer we get to an election, the more heated the debates are on immigration, specifically surrounding H-1B 'skilled worker' visas, of which India is a major beneficiary. Here's a look at the positions of the leading presidential candidates from both parties, some of which may surprise you.

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1 of 5 Donald Trump Campaign

Donald Trump

If the Republican nomination was to happen today, Donald Trump would steamroll over the rest of his competitors without breaking a sweat -- he's that far ahead in the polls. Which is why his position on tech-related immigration matters so much.

It is an understatement to say that Trump is against the H-1B visa. He positively loathes it, and has withering criticism for Marco Rubio, whom he considers a lackey to Silicon Valley and Mark Zuckerberg in particular, calling him the Facebook founder's "personal senator". What really gets his goat about Rubio is the Florida Senator's past plan to triple H-1Bs, which he says would "decimate women and minorities".

Trump thinks that the STEM (people in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math) shortage is a malicious myth. "We graduate two times more Americans with STEM degrees each year than find STEM jobs, yet as much as two-thirds of entry-level hiring for IT jobs is accomplished through the H-1B program," the campaign's position paper said. It also maintained that more than half of H-1B visas are issued for the program's lowest allowable wage level, and more than 80 percent for its bottom two, the Trump campaign said, although there's plenty of heated debate around this issue.

Consequently, Trump proposes to raise the minimum wage for foreign H-1B hires to "force companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs to the existing domestic pool of unemployed native and immigrant workers in the US, instead of flying in cheaper workers from overseas", a stance that he underscored during his most recent presidential debate.

Trump has special ire reserved for Disney, who shipped in H-1B workers from India to replace 400-odd American techies at their Florida offices. To add to the ignominy of their being summarily fired, the Americans were forced to train their replacements over a period of a month or so lest they lose their severance payments. Trump insists that Disney hire back each worker let go. "If I am president, I will not issue any H-1B visas to companies that replace American workers and my Department of Justice will pursue action against them," he told a news outfit.

But how serious is Trump about all of this if he wins the nomination? According to Vivek Wadhwa, a scholar and entrepreneur who researches immigration and technology issues and teaches at Stanford University, Trump will probably execute a "tactical shift" and dial down his anti-immigration position to the point of actually favouring skilled workers. Alienating the tech industry may just prove too costly a move to risk.

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2 of 5 Marc Rubio Campaign

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio is the darling of Silicon Valley and the tech industry in general. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg finds the Republican Florida senator a valuable enough asset to have funnelled him campaign funds in the past, earning Rubio the scorn of Donald Trump.

The reason for both adulation and scorn is because Rubio is an unabashed champion of the H-1B visa. His version of the 2013 Immigration Bill would have bumped up the annual H-1B quota by 45,000 slots. That proposal didn't go through, but he's since tried to salvage it by offering an even more audacious increase via his I-Squared bill: a tripling of the amount to 195,000 H-1B visas.

Rubio has added a caveat though by stating that the Bill would need companies that wanted to bring in skilled workers to advertise the job for 180 days to ensure that Americans would get first dibs at applying. "You also have to prove that you're going to pay these people more than you would pay someone else so that you're not undercutting it by bringing in cheap labour," he added during a recent debate, but that is unlikely to satisfy people in the Trump corner.

Rubio has also asked for more sweeping reforms of the immigration system that would include a merit-based point system that would allow foreigners who graduate from US universities with advanced STEM degrees to get easier access to green cards, and ultimately citizenship. "My argument is if you're the best at what you do on this planet, I don't want you here temporarily," he said. "I want you here permanently. I want you to become American."

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3 of 5 Alex Wong

Ted Cruz

Republican Ted Cruz gets the prize for being the most enigmatic senator for his somewhat bizarre, radical shift in position on tech immigration. Originally pushing for a more nuanced, moderate view a few years ago that overwhelmingly supported H-1Bs and immigration in general during the bitterly contested Senate Immigration Bill in 2013, this Texas senator swerved dramatically towards the extreme right while on the campaign trail late last year.

In November of 2015, Cruz unveiled his "new" hardline vision which included a temporary moratorium on legal immigration, an end to birthright citizenship, and a suspension of the H-1B visa program for 180 days so the government could investigate abuse and even the withholding of some types of aid to legal immigrants. In doing so, he veered radically right of his original positions on issues that he very explicitly and repeatedly clarified during the Senate sessions in 2013.

One component of Cruz's earlier proposal, as fantastical as it may seem, was to increase the H-1B allotment by a staggering 500 percent to 325,000 visas annually, which makes Rubio, with his I-Squared bill and its 195,000 H-1B visas, positively conservative by contrast. A review by CNN of close to 1,000 pages of the committee transcripts that chronicled the five-day affair show a wholly different Cruz, one who was an avowed lover of immigration, especially skilled workers. When Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions expressed concern that Cruz's large-scale H-1B increase may be too high, Cruz was unrelenting. "High-skilled immigrants whether temporary or permanent are, I believe, the data demonstrates pro-growth," Cruz said. "They generate jobs. They generate economic productivity."

"I think legal immigration is a fundamental pillar of our country," added Cruz at the committee debate according to the papers unearthed by CNN. "And I think, as a nation, we need to remain a nation that doesn't just welcome, but that celebrates legal immigrants around this table." Cruz didn't just stop there. He apparently supported Sen. Orrin Hatch's (R-Utah) amendment that would help get work papers for spouses of H-1B workers. He also, according to the CNN article, thwarted attempts to audit 1 percent of companies that sponsor high-skilled visas on an annual basis.

If you're whistling in disbelief, there's more: Cruz also tried to do away with what he dubbed "arbitrary" caps for four countries -- China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines. "I don't think we should be discriminating against those nations," he said, while proposing to replace all the various high-skills related visas into just one.

What earthly explanation could be offered for such a "flip-flop", a label that Rubio has repeatedly used to describe Cruz's antics?

Cruz said that it was all just a plan to thwart the efforts of a more moderate Rubio by suggesting something outlandish and tanking the bill. "I was leading the fight along with Jeff Sessions to defeat this bill, the Gang of Eight bill. As a result, I was introducing a whole series of amendments, in part, to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the Democrats," he said on a radio talk show.

In fact, the article suggests that it is influential, conservative talk radio that may have pushed Cruz's abrupt reversal. Trump dismisses his rival's volte-face as a sad effort to "step up his whole game on amnesty and illegal immigration, because it was actually quite weak."

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4 of 5 NBC News

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, Democratic nominee for president and a former Secretary of State, hasn't said a whole lot on H-1Bs, at least in comparison to her Republican foes. In fact, she doesn't mention it at all in her immigration platform.

That's because Clinton is someone who tends to bend with the wind on this issue. In 2007, in a speech to top Silicon Valley executives, she was very clearly on the side of boosting H-1B numbers. " I am reaffirming my commitment to the H-1B visa and increasing the current cap. Foreign skilled workers contribute greatly to what we have to do in being innovators," she said to loud applause.

In 2003, she was clearly not hesitant to inaugurate the offices of India's Tata Consultancy Services in Buffalo, one of the major beneficiaries of H-1Bs and IT outsourcing contracts from the US. Clinton was the key architect of the whole plan to bring business, and TCS, to the State of New York, at a time when the whole issue of outsourcing and H-1Bs was gathering steam.

However, in 2009, when the US economy was in a tailspin thanks to the subprime mortgage fiasco and the Obama administration that could ill afford to push things like outsourcing, her position was far more cautious. "In a global recession, every country is going to want to make sure that we have enough jobs for our people," said Clinton, while visiting India. "So, we have to figure out how we're going to work together. Outsourcing is a concern for many communities and businesses in my country."

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5 of 5 Bernie Sanders Campaign

Bernie Sanders

In a surreal twist, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (the Vermont Senator seeking a Democratic nomination for president), who normally occupy starkly contrasting positions on pretty much any issue, actually do have one thing in common: their distaste for H-1B visas.

"What I do not support is, under the guise of immigrant reform, a process pushed by large corporations which results in more unemployment and lower wages for American workers," he said in an interview with the Washington Post.

"I find it hard to understand that, when 9 million people in this country have degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, only about 3 million have jobs in these areas," he added.

What these companies are after is cheap labour at the expense of the American worker, plain and simple, said Sanders. His fix: reform the H-1B program by raising wages substantially. "I have a hard time understanding the notion that there's a severe need for more workers from abroad when wages for these jobs rose only 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2011," he said in the same Washington Post interview. "You see stagnant wages for high-skilled workers, when these companies tell you that they desperately need high-skilled workers. Why not raise wages to attract those workers?"

Sanders also wants a "whistleblower visa" for workers reporting labor violations.

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