What Rubio got right on immigration

Trump, Rubio hit Disney over H-1B visa usage
Trump, Rubio hit Disney over H-1B visa usage

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    Trump, Rubio hit Disney over H-1B visa usage

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Trump, Rubio hit Disney over H-1B visa usage 01:13

Story highlights

  • Sreedhar Potarazu: Many companies are big believers in the H1-B visa program
  • Abuse of the program by some companies shouldn't lead to it being nixed, he says

Sreedhar Potarazu, an ophthalmologist and entrepreneur, is the founder of Enziime, a software company focused on providing data science applications to assess health care delivery. He is the author of "Get Off the Dime: The Secret of Changing Who Pays for Your Health Care." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)When the Republican candidates finally stopped comparing hand sizes and started talking about some serious issues in last week's presidential debate, we were reminded that America's immigration issue won't be solved just by building a huge wall along the Rio Grande.

In particular, the candidates argued over how to address the issue of H1-B visas, which allow foreign workers skilled in "specialty occupations" to work in the United States for up to six years, and whether hiring those workers takes away jobs from Americans.
    Sreedhar Potarazu
    Donald Trump readily acknowledged that his businesses have hired foreign workers, but he said he opposes the program nonetheless. "I know the H1-B very well. And it's something that I frankly use and I shouldn't be allowed to use it," he said.
    "[I]t's very bad for our workers and it's unfair for our workers. And we should end it," he said.
    Such views are in stark contrast with Marco Rubio's position. The Florida senator supports the I-Squared Act of 2015, which would triple the number of H1-B visas offered every year. And although Rubio advocated in the debate requiring American companies to post a position for 180 days to give American workers first dibs on the job, that provision is not included in the bill's current form.
    I'm with Rubio on this issue. The H1-B is a good program. Sure, it needs fixing. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
    Full disclosure: I'm the CEO of a company that actively employs H1-B workers. They have skill sets that are specific to my business, and the reality is that I'm often unable to find equally skilled and qualified American workers who are available to work when I need them.
    And I'm not alone. Many companies, including tech giants like Microsoft and Google, employ people through the H1-B program and are big believers in it.
    Still, the program can be abused, something that needs to be addressed. For example, it's one thing when a company like Microsoft hires individuals from other countries to perform specific tasks and then puts them on the company payroll. It's an entirely different thing when an overseas-based company hires large numbers of foreign workers, provides them with H1-B visas, and then outsources them to American companies.
    The outsourcers -- often referred to as "body shops" -- are permitted to gobble up the H1-B visas in large quantities, which enables them to provide whole teams of foreign workers to American companies. They often pay their employees less than what a comparably skilled American worker would get, and they are known to save on expenses by housing multiple workers in shared facilities called "guesthouses." For the American businesses that hire these outsourced workers, that can amount to a huge savings in labor costs.
    The most egregious example of what can happen in this scenario occurred in 2015, when Disney was accused of hiring hundreds of H1-B workers from outsourcers at discounted salaries, laying off up to 300 American workers, and allegedly telling them they had 90 days to train their foreign replacements. (Disney has denied wrongdoing.)
    Yet even though the system is sometimes abused, that doesn't mean we should abandon it. It just means we need to oversee it better, because there are plenty of companies that follow the rules and who benefit greatly from foreign workers who have been trained to do jobs that for one reason or another can't be filled by Americans.
    This is an entirely separate issue from the issuance of green cards, which the candidates also touched upon last week. Green cards are given to foreigners who seek permanent residence in the United States, but unlike H1-B workers, they are eligible to receive Social Security and Medicare benefits -- even if they have never worked here and have never contributed to the system. This is clearly unfair to American workers, who pay taxes throughout their working years to support the system. Whether green card holders who haven't contributed should be denied these benefits is a worthy conversation, but it's a separate one.
    So, on H1-B, let's be prudent. We need to oversee the program more strongly to ensure that outsourcers don't abuse the system. And we need to provide better education and training for American workers. They deserve the opportunity to obtain the skills they need to fill every one of these jobs.
    But that's no reason to abandon a program that helps grow the U.S. economy. We need to fix it, not nix it.