WASHINGTON -- Following controversy over 250 Disney workers laid off in favor of foreign workers, Sen. Bill Nelson wants to slash the number of specialized work visas.
The Florida Democrat produced the legislation with an unlikely ally, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, an immigration hardliner. And their bill opposes an initiative co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio that triples the number of current H-1B visas given annually -- an issue that has come up in the presidential race.
"By cutting the number of visas available each year and requiring those visas be given to the highest-wage earners first, this bill directly targets outsourcing companies that rely on lower-wage foreign workers to replace equally qualified U.S. workers," Nelson said.
The "Protecting American Jobs Act" would cut the number of H-1B visas by 15,000. It calls on the Department of Homeland Security to allocate the remaining 70,000 visas in a way that minimizes the potential for companies to seek cheap foreign labor.
Disney sparked outrage when 250 workers in Orlando were laid off in late 2014 and replaced with workers hired by an outsourcing company based in India. The stunned workers had to train their replacements.
"I just couldn't believe they could fly people in to sit at our desks and take over our jobs exactly," one former worker, an American in his 40s, told the New York Times. "It was so humiliating to train somebody else to take over your job. I still can't grasp it."
To get a severance, the worker said: "I had to make sure they were doing my job correctly."
Sessions and others who say U.S. immigration law is too liberal have held up Disney as a prime example of abuse. Nelson took aim at H-1B visas in joining calls for a federal investigation. Rubio's office told Computerworld that he wanted people who abuse the program held accountable, but he did not back Nelson.
"We don't have a lot of confidence in the Obama Administration's ability to carry out this investigation, protect American workers or enforce our immigration laws," a Rubio spokeswoman said.
Rubio is a lead sponsor of a bill called I-Squared, which triples the number of H-1B visas. The bill, which has bipartisan support, has come under siege from conservatives and has added to Rubio's immigration woes as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination.
The bill is supported by big technology firms such as Microsoft and Oracle, which previously backed Rubio on the 2013 "Gang of 8" immigration bill and whose executives have contributed to him. In June, Oracle's Larry Ellison hosted a fundraiser for Rubio's campaign. Ellison also gave $3 million to the pro-Rubio super PAC.
Rubio's office did not respond to a request for comment on Nelson's bill.
He has retreated from the comprehensive approach and has emphasized security and enforcement. Rubio has justified the visa expansion (the bill's reach goes beyond H-1B) as filling jobs with the best talent and he says it boosts the economy.
"An immigration system for the 21st century will be judged by whether it provides the conditions for both security and economic growth," Rubio said in a news release announcing the bill. "The reforms in this legislation lead the way to such a system, which I believe we can ultimately achieve after meeting the immediate challenges of securing our borders and improving internal enforcement."
The issue came up during the third presidential debate and Rubio talked about reforms to protect American jobs, but the measures he discussed were not in the bill he sponsored, further infuriating critics.
The Disney controversy came up during the Florida GOP's presidential summit last month in Orlando.
"Yes, I know that I'm in Orlando. I know it's the happiest place on Earth," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. "But it wasn't very happy for the Disney workers who were replaced by foreign workers."
Sen. Ted Cruz, who lashed out at Rubio over immigration, held a raucous rally at a nearby megachurch and circulated a policy paper that restricted H-1B Visas. Cruz once supported an expansion -- as Rubio pointed out -- but he backtracked, citing Disney.
Now comes Nelson, who said of his bill: "The measure will help ensure that the H-1B visa program is once again being used as it was originally intended: to attract foreign workers with highly specialized skills not found among the available U.S. workforce."
A separate bill which Nelson filed a month ago last month bars employers from replacing a U.S. worker with an H-1B visa holder.