Obama's H-1B answer in forum may haunt him

Sen. Grassley says Obama's response to wife of laid-off tech worker indicates support for 1B restrictions

WASHINGTON -- Until President Barack Obama responded to a question about H-1B visas during an online forum last week, the administration had said little about the controversial program.

But that has changed, thanks to the question posed by Jennifer Wedel of Fort Worth, Texas.

Wedel wanted to know why the government continues to issue H-1B visas when many U.S. tech workers are jobless. Her husband, Darin Wedel, a semiconductor engineer, was laid off from his full-time job at Texas Instruments three years ago following a plant shutdown, she told Obama.

Obama's answers to Wedel's questions offered both insight and ammunition for Congressional reformers.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter Tuesday to chiding the president over some of his responses to Wedel's questions.

Grassley also said the online conversation encouraged him as well. For instance, Grassley zoomed in on the president's statement that "the H1-B should be reserved only for those companies who say they cannot find somebody in that particular field."

Grassley indicated that the this view of the president aligns with his own feelings about the visa.

"I have long believed that it's not unreasonable to ask businesses to first determine if there are qualified Americans to fill vacant positions," Grassley wrote in his letter to Obama, "It seems you may agree with this premise."

Grassley, along with Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), has been championing legislation that would set a number of restrictions on the H-1B and the L-1 visa programs, such as prohibiting companies with more 50 employees from having over 50% of their workforce hold either H-1B or L-1 visas.

The proposal has alarmed offshore outsourcing companies who rely heavily on H-1B visas.

The effort by Grassley and Durbin would also require that employers first try to fill jobs with U.S. workers.

The White House has offered few specifics over the years about what changes it would like to see in the H-1B program. It has talked in policy papers about "strengthening" the program but has not explained what that entails.

In his letter, Grassley chided Obama over his assertion that someone with engineering skills should be able to get a high tech job swiftly. "Your response to Ms. Wedel leads me to believe that you don't understand the plight of many unemployed high-skill Americans," he wrote.

Obama's view that the H-1B visa should be reserved for those companies who say they cannot find workers with particular skills provides "a common-sense prescription for how the H-1B program should work," said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "But of course it doesn't."

Hira cites a U.S. Department of Labor strategic plan prepared about five year ago, but since been removed from the agency's Web site, that said: "H-1B workers may be hired even when a qualified U.S. worker wants the job, and a U.S. worker can be displaced from the job in favor of the foreign worker."

Employers are not required to recruit U.S. workers unless a company is considered H-1B dependent, meaning it has reached a certain employment threshold, according to the Labor department. A company with 51 or more full-time workers, of whom 15% or more hold H-1B visas would be consider dependent.

"If the President means what he says then he ought to support the common-sense bipartisan reforms that have been proposed by Senators Durbin and Grassley. It would ensure that the H-1B program actually meets the goals President Obama claims he wants for it," said Hira.

"If the President is serious about insourcing American jobs then this is a change that can create hundreds of thousands of high-wage high-tech jobs for Americans without any cost to the taxpayer," he added.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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