Obama steps up controversial push for new high-tech visas

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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White House press secretary Jay Carney today doubled down on President Barack Obama’s support for more immigration of high-tech workers, despite growing public concern about the displacement of the American white collar workforce.

“We need to make it more possible for highly qualified people who are being educated here, or coming from abroad to work here, [to] build businesses here, grow the economy here, create jobs here,” Carney said at the midday press conference.

“The broader picture is one of a need for more engineers, a need for more highly skilled, highly educated workers to help us grow those industries in the United States that will be the foundation for our economic future,” Carney said.

However, a large-scale program for high-tech workers risks alienating middle-class voters who don’t want to see their jobs, or their relatives’ jobs, given to low-wage immigrants, said Center for Immigration Studies director Mark Krikorian.

An October poll by the Washington Post and Bloomberg showed that only 31 percent of 1,000 surveyed adults supported an increase in high-tech immigration. The poll showed that almost twice as may respondents, 59 percent, opposed any increase in visa numbers.

But “an issue doesn’t do anything until it is picked up [by a politician, and] even Romney, who is hawkish on immigration, isn’t picking it up,” he said. “I don’t see him doing that … [because] he says skilled immigration is good for America.”

Nonetheless, Obama’s proposals will likely be stopped by Hispanic ethnic lobbies who are holding out for a comprehensive immigration law granting amnesty to millions of unskilled Hispanics, Krikorian said. (RELATED: Full coverage of Barack Obama)

The ethnic lobbies know that prospects for congressional approval of a controversial amnesty would be further reduced if the business lobbies have already gotten their visas, he said.

Obama can’t provoke a conflict with the Hispanic lobbies, he said, because he need them to spur Hispanic turnout in November.

The president pushed the high-tech immigration message today by announcing to cameras at the start of a cabinet meeting that he would be talking “about how we can improve the visa process for those who are interested in investing in the United States and starting businesses here in the United States.” (RELATED: Under Obama, guest-worker visa policy creates left-right conflict)

His administration also asked Congress today to lift caps on the number of visas that can be awarded to nationals of selected countries. The measure could allow the administration to boost visa numbers for Indians or Chinese by curbing the number awarded to other countries’ citizens.

These steps are part of the administration’s broad effort to jump-start the economy prior to the November election, and to please critical business groups and ethnic lobbies.

Industry officials say the extra workers are needed to staff new companies. “That is the message you here from business leaders across the country, especially in the fields of technology and engineering,” Carney said.

But critics cite government-provided data to showing that many of the imported experts are paid much less than U.S. workers, are expected to work much longer hours than U.S. workers with children, and replace U.S. experts when they are employed.

Obama was confronted by that reality with a question from Jennifer Weddel during a Google-hosted online town hall event. Weddel, a resident of Fort Worth, Texas, told Obama that her husband is a semiconductor engineer who was laid off three years ago and has not found a full-time job.

“My question to you is ‘Why does the government continue to issue and extend H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans, just like my husband, with no jobs?” Weddel said.

He “should be able to find a job right away,” Obama responded, apparently unaware of how H-1B visa are used by companies to reduce their payroll costs.

Obama’s support for the import of H1-B workers illustrates his continued confidence that he and his aides can serve as national economic guides, despite the stalled economy in the third year of his term.

The United States, said the president, will have to guide the design of cars by the auto-companies, partly by anticipating the public’s wishes. The small business sector will be helped by the federal government because the director of the Small Business Administration will be able to talk “to me directly, with none on between,” he said. Government, he said, will have to “create ladders of opportunity” for Americans.

Confronted by Weddel’s objection to the politically powerful H-1B program, however, Obama compensated by offering the help of a White House national jobs counselor, akin to a mayors’ office.

“If you send me your husband’s resume I’d be interested in finding out exactly what’s happening right there because the word we’re getting is that somebody in that kind of high-tech field, that kind of engineer, should be able to find something right away,” Obama told Weddel.

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