On Tuesday, the White House’s website highlighted President Barack Obama’s campaign-trail support for the H-1B visa program. Just hours before, he had dismissed a woman’s worries about her husband and other American engineers losing jobs to foreign engineers allowed into the United States under the H-1B program.
“I don’t know your husband’s specialty, but I can tell you there’s a huge demand around the country for engineers,” Obama told Jennifer Wedel of Fort Worth, Texas on Monday night. The question came during a Google-hosted online interview of the president by several Americans.
Wedel told Obama that her husband, a semiconductor engineer, was laid off three years ago and has not found a full-time job.
“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?” Wedel asked.
He “should be able to find a job right away,” Obama responded, though the phenomenon of middle-aged high-tech engineers being replaced by younger, immigrant high-tech engineers is well documented.
Obama told Wedel that “the H-1B [visas] should be reserved only for those companies who say they cannot find somebody in that particular field,” but this is not true.
“It really does show how clueless immigration enthusiasts really are,” said Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “The line that companies only bring in H-1B people when they can’t find someone else to do the job is simply false.”
Promotion of the H-1B program is part of Obama’s re-election strategy.
On Tuesday morning, the White House’s blog highlighted Obama’s decision to invite a Brazilian-born immigrant software engineer, Mike Krieger, to sit with the first lady during his Jan. 24 State of the Union Speech. (RELATED: First lady’s SOTU guest list indicates 2012 campaign priorities)
Krieger is in the country on a student visa because he’s enrolled at Stanford University. But he has also gained a temporary H-1B visa that allows him to stay in the county and compete against American engineers for high-tech jobs.
Krieger was included, alongside an engineer born in Taiwan, as part of the administration’s outreach to Silicon Valley and the high-tech sector, which includes many other foreign-born engineers.
That support for the H-1B program also helps to win support from communities of immigrants — especially Indians, Asians and Brazilians — who are prominent in the high-tech sector and have been courted by the Obama administration for years.
The White House website highlighted Krieger’s praise of Obama’s pro-immigrant policies.
“The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency is taking a page from Silicon Valley and is recruiting a set of entrepreneurs … to clarify the options available to immigrant entrepreneurs who want to start companies and … President Obama called on Congress to help grant permanent status to immigrants who want to ‘staff our labs, start new businesses, and defend this country,’” Krieger wrote.
In responding to Wedel’s H-1B question, Obama also cited recommendations by industry.
“What industry tells me is that they don’t have enough highly skilled engineers … there’s a huge demand for engineers around the country right now,” said Obama, whose Council on Jobs and Competitiveness includes several CEOs that employ H-1B engineers.
Obama is using the council to build support in the business sector, and also to show voters that he has some support from business during a time of record unemployment.
Each year, the government allows companies to hire 65,000 H-1B high-tech workers, including many engineers. Another 20,000 visas are given to foreigners with advanced degrees, and tens of thousands more are available under numerous other categories.
Google, General Electric, Microsoft, Intel and many other high-tech companies use the H-1B visa to attract technical experts, thus opening American workers to foreign competition.
Many of the foreign-born engineers are hired as subcontractors to work in low-wage high-tech jobs for several years.
A 2008 review by Krikorian’s center of the H-1B program concluded that many American high-tech workers are replaced by cheaper H-1B immigrants, and that “wages for H-1B workers averaged $12,000 below the median wage for U.S. workers in the same occupation and location.”
Others win permanent residency and form companies, including Krieger. According to the White House website, his 12-employee company, Instagram, “is the fastest growing social mobile startup in the U.S. today, and exemplifies President Obama’s belief that ‘entrepreneurs embody the promise of America: The idea that if you have a good idea and are willing to work hard and see it through, you can succeed in this country.'”
When confronted by Wedel’s husband’s struggle, Obama offered to look closer into it.
“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 said.
Obama’s promotion of H-1B is politically significant because Wedel is a middle-class voter whose economic well-being is being undermined by high-tech immigration, and because she and her many peers could swing against Obama in the 2012 election, Krikorian said.
“Somebody is going to be in trouble for letting that woman’s question get through,” Krikorian said.