The best question at Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  Crist launches bid for Florida governor, seeking to recapture his old job MORE's (R-Fla.) caucus event at Smokey Row Coffee in Oskaloosa, Iowa earlier this month didn't come from an Iowan. It came from a Chicago-area man who drove over 300 miles through a blizzard to ask it.


I arrived at the event at the local coffee shop about 45 minutes early and found myself behind a man who looked big enough to have played defensive line in pro football a generation ago. He towered over two young Rubio staffers as they registered him, and maybe the two of them together might have equaled his mass.

"Is Rubio going to answer questions?" the man asked.

"I'm not sure," one staffer said. "I assume so."

"Assume? I hope so," the man said. "I drove all the way from Chicago to ask him a question."

The man signed in, bought an orange juice and a muffin, and intrigued, I asked him if I might join him for a few minutes to learn why he had driven so far to ask Rubio a question.

He introduced himself as Scott Szlachta, an information technology (IT) professional from a suburb north of Chicago. "I want to ask Rubio about the H-1B visa program," he told me.

"OK," I said, "you'll have to explain it to me." I was ignorant of the program, and was worried that I was about to get into a dull conversation. I was wrong.

Szlalchta explained that the H-1B visa program is designed to allow U.S. employers to recruit and employ professionals from other countries when there aren't enough people trained in the U.S. that have the skills to do the job. He wanted to ask Rubio about it because he wasn't satisfied with how Rubio addressed it at the CNBC Republican presidential debate in October and because of some legislation Rubio has supported.

"Guys like me are endangered," Szlachta said. "Middle-aged, and in the computer industry." He explained that companies like Microsoft are using H-1B visas to hire foreign programmers, sometimes outsourcing the programming and electrical engineering jobs to foreign companies who underbid U.S. companies. The workers hired are primarily from India, and they're hired under the guise that there aren't any U.S. citizens who can do the job, and that's not true. "All they have to do is attest that there isn't an U.S. citizen who can do the job. They don't have to prove it."

He continued. "In the early 1990s, I ran a large development group for a software company outside of Chicago, and at that time I managed seven different development teams with 45 programmers, and 43 of them were U.S. citizens. Two of them were from India. That was when the H-1B program started, and in a similar circumstance now, the numbers would be roughly inverted. You might find two Americans out of 45 ... I know one kid who was the only citizen in a company right here in the U.S. with 400 IT professionals. ... Look, these American companies aren't just hiring foreign workers — they're outsourcing the jobs, and foreigners are doing the work here, at the same desks where Americans used to work."

Szlachta not only had personal experience with the issue, he had been doing research on it as well, and mentioned some media reports: "Laura Ingraham referenced the threat to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers on Fox News, and Megyn Kelly talked to Michelle Malkin about it — Malkin has a new book on it."

"To make matters worse," he said, "look at what Disney did, and Southern California Edison: They outsource your job, then fire you and give you a bonus to train your replacement if you needed the money. Look it up." 

I did later that afternoon. Ian Tuttle with the National Review has dealt with the H-1B issue in detail, and has criticized Rubio's attempts to make more H-1B visas available.

At Smokey Row, Szlachta waited patiently while Rubio gave his stump speech. When Rubio ended his speech, and asked for questions, Szlachta's hand went up, and Rubio called on him first.

Szlachta asked Rubio to clarify his position on the visas.

Rubio bit hard on the question, like he had heard it before. He explained the program to the audience, said what companies are doing is illegal, and that the loophole needs to be fixed. One of the problems, he said, was that no one was enforcing the law. Rubio identified that the real problems came from just three outsourcing companies. In essence, Rubio echoed what Szlachta had told me, and then repeated that position in a private interview I had with him after the event.

The problem was, at the time I didn't know what Szlachta did, and neither did Rubio's audience. I didn't know that as Tuttle had pointed out in the National Review, Rubio's 2013 bill expanded the use of H-1B visas and didn't solve the problems Szlachta had identified. In 2013, Rubio's bill would increase the quotas to 45,000 workers, and a current bill would triple H-1B visas to 195,000. This is what Szlachta wanted Rubio to address.

Tuttle gave more detail on the two examples Szlachta told me of how companies have replaced American workers with cheaper foreign labor. "In late 2014, Disney laid off 250 workers, replacing them with H-1B employees. Then, like some 400 workers laid off from Southern California Edison last year, the Disney employees were required to participate in a 'knowledge transfer' — i.e., they were forced to train the foreign workers who took their jobs."

Was Szlachta happy with Rubio’s answers?

"Not really," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I like Rubio. I'm a big fan — I wouldn't have driven from Chicago if he wasn't my guy. I've given Rubio money. Rubio is right for advocating for vocational training, both for trade workers, and for getting STEM-type degrees in college, but the problem is that his legislation on H-1B visas contradicts that. He wants to train U.S. citizens to be programmers, but wants to open a backdoor. ... I still want to know what he would do to fix the H-1B program. ... I know he's got to walk a fine line ... he wants and needs the money and support from the big tech guys in New York, Seattle, Austin and Silicon Valley, so he needs to please them, but something needs to be done. It's wrong. They're taking jobs from American workers."

Szlachta's frustration was most apparent when he said that "we put a man on the moon and launched all those space shuttles without any help from foreign programmers, and we don't need them now. Look at all of the impressive technological innovations made in the last century in the defense industry — and there are no H-1B foreigners working there. They need to be U.S. citizens to get a security clearance. Today, I'd tell a kid who wanted to get a computer science degree to go for it, but do it with your eyes wide open. If you're good, you'll get hired right out of college, but by the time you hit 35-40, unless you can move into management, your career will be in serious jeopardy."

Szlachta had a long drive back home to Chicago after the event, thinking all the way. He sent me an email that provided additional valuable and thoughtful analysis of how he sees the problem. I've edited it lightly.

Free trade proponents are often challenged by folks who say free trade doesn't work when countries like Japan or South Korea or China "dump" steel into the U.S. marketplace (at government-subsidized costs) that U.S. Steel can't compete with. Proponents of free trade will then say that we need "fair trade" that would prohibit these practices by imposing tariffs on countries doing this. ... It seems to me that what we now have in a parallel sense is "unfair trade" in our labor markets where foreign labor is being "dumped," as with steel, on the American labor market. No longer just with folks with few skills crossing the southern border, but, in the last 10 to 15 years, we are seeing this now with educated folks being imported into the U.S. under the guise that we don't have any folks here skilled enough to do the work. We've got the citizens to do the work. Unfortunately, as with U.S. Steel not being able to compete with "dumped" steel, the American worker cannot compete with "dumped" labor.

The big guy has a point. And I'm sure that he would like not only Rubio, but every candidate, to address it.

Leonard covered the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses for KNIA/KRLS Radio in Knoxville and Pella, Iowa. He is an anthropologist and author of "Yellow Cab."