By Joe Guzzardi
February 18, 2012
Earlier this week, a live online video chat featured President Obama and Jennifer Weddel, the wife of an unemployed engineer whose husband has been out of a job for three years. Weddel asked the president: "Why does the government continue to extend H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my [engineer] husband with no job?"
Caught off guard, Obama tried to deflect Weddel's argument by inquiring what type of engineer her husband is. When Weddel replied "semiconductor," Obama resorted to elusive double talk before promising to review his case further. To add to Obama's embarrassment, Wedell is unemployed in Texas, a tech industry hub.
The problem that the president unexpectedly faced is that semiconductor engineers are in one of the categories which IT industry executives have been telling Congress can't be found in the United States. And the White House has acted on industry misinformation. From the El Paso border to the State of the Union address and at every stop in between, Obama has aggressively called for increasing the 65,000 H-1B visas issued annually. The Weddel-Obama dust up set off a flurry of Internet postings and analysis among organizations that have insisted for years that no shortage of American engineers or any other classification of worker exists. After all, when there are so many million unemployed Americans, how can there be shortages?
Indeed, the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based research organization that favors less immigration, found that 1.8 million Americans under age 66 have engineering degrees but not an engineering job.
The study, "Is President Obama Right about Engineers?" is based on data collected by the Census Bureau from the American Community Survey. Dr. Steven Camarota, its author, found the following: 1) 101,000 U.S. engineers looking for a job can't find any type of work at all; 2) 244,000 engineers are unemployed and have stopped looking for work and 3) 1.5 million engineers have jobs but don't work as engineers.
In his numerous supportive speeches about lifting the visa cap, Obama has repeatedly referred to the foreign-born workers he wants to bring to the United States as "highly skilled." But Dr. Camarota's research revealed that in 2010 there were 25,000 unemployed Americans with engineering degrees who have a master's or Ph.D. degree and 68,000 with advanced degrees not in the labor force. There were also 489,000 U.S.-born individuals with graduate degrees who were working but not as engineers.
Another important consideration: in the two decades since its inception, is that the H-1B visa has been used for non-engineering fields like teaching, pharmacy and even football coaching. No job is safe.
Today's lesson is that every story has two sides. The administration has listened closely to the business elites who want more visas. Now, the hour has come for the White House to pay equal attention to unemployed Americans' pleas.
Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. His columns about immigration and other social issues have been syndicated since 1986. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.