A Google-sponsored town hall event with President Obama Monday evening quickly turned to immigration issues.In the most publicized moment of the event, a woman from Texas asked Pres. Obama why he supported importing more high-tech foreign workers when her husband, who is a semiconductor engineer, has been unemployed for the past three years. Pres. Obama's only response was to pander to the high-tech lobby.
You may be forgiven for any skepticism you might have had going in to the Google ‘Hangout.’ No matter how new, high-tech and interactive the medium, politicians generally tend try to avoid situations where they could be cornered or come across as out of touch. This is why most exchanges meant for television consumption seem to feel controlled somehow. Fortunately, even Washington D.C. remains capable of the occasional pleasant surprise.
The teachable moment came in the form of Jennifer Wedel from Fort Worth, Texas. She may be the very first to explicitly link immigration to the issue of joblessness in a question to the President.
Jennifer was one of a handful of live video questioners, with the ability to have a back-and-forth with the President. She asked why the government continues to issue and extend H-1B visas while unemployed American engineers like her husband (formerly of Texas Instruments) remain part of the long-term unemployment statistics. The H-1B program issues more than 100,000 visas annually to ‘high skilled’ foreign workers on a supposedly temporary basis.
Out of the gate, Pres. Obama asserted that there is a "huge demand" for engineers, positioning himself to defend the policy. He then rambled a bit about the different types of engineers, hitting one of his longtime talking points: government infrastructure projects. The President gave away the game with his next comment, stating,
What industry tells me is that we don’t have enough highly skilled engineers.
-- Pres. Obama, January 30, 2012
Finally, he asked Jennifer for her husband’s resume so he can pass it along.
The conversation continued, with Jennifer following up with the question:
Why do you think the H-1B program is so popular with big corporations?
That question was never answered. The President could only reply that the situation was "interesting".
In a Washington Post/Bloomberg poll from October of 2011, the following question was asked:
Some U.S. companies say they can’t find enough highly-skilled Americans to fill jobs. One proposal is to increase the number of visas for foreign workers with advanced degrees in math, science, and engineering so they can fill those jobs in the U.S. Do you support or oppose this idea?
The results came back: 59% opposed, only 31% in support. This policy is clearly not one driven by public popularity.
So what about the substance? Is there a huge demand for engineers, or not?
A few months ago Ed Perkins, former chairman of the IEEE-USA Career and Workforce Policy Committee, said,
I would suspect that what we are seeing is that employers have all the [engineers] they need… it is business as usual – but with a smaller workforce. This could be the new normal. We could need new industries or new companies to absorb the unemployed.
Engineers are certainly in a better position than those in other industries like construction or hospitality. But ultimately it’s a field that has been negatively affected just like nearly every other niche of the economy. Salaries have experienced a slight decrease for non-Internet software development, for instance. And the unemployment rate for engineers may sound low at 4.5%, but that’s roughly double the normal rate, according to IEEE.
As of 2010, 300,000 computer scientists and engineers were unemployed. Unemployment rates are 2-3 times what we would see with full employment, according to Ron Hira, public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. These workers are part of the American labor pool, which is the most productive on earth. Yet we continue to allow a huge influx of permanent and temporary foreign workers (like those receiving H-1B visas) every year.
No matter where you stand on Pres. Obama, wouldn’t his recruitment efforts be peerless? To be honest, I think we’re much more likely to see this President get Darin Wedel a job than we are to see a policy change. That would be a storybook ending for the Wedels, but would count as another missed opportunity for all the other unemployed Americans and legal immigrants.
Hats off to Jennifer, though. If you seek a model for how to be effective in your political activism, look no further than this interaction. Jennifer was informed through evidently solid preparation, focused on specific policy, and firm but not confrontational. The facts are on her side, and she didn’t let the President revert to vague or generalized talking points. The result was so poignant that the exchange has already received widespread media attention. Your elected officials all deserve this same line of questioning.
ANDREW GOOD is the Local Activism Coordinator for NumbersUSA