1 When Barry Met Jennifer
A Texas Mom’s Epic Reality Check for the White House
Jennifer Wedel describes herself as a “YouTuber” with “a sassy mouth.”
The thirty-two-year-old Fort Worth resident has a Texas-sized personality to match. She’s wild about her family, Schlotzky’s sandwiches, and fart jokes. Jennifer is also a self-described “big, dorky nerd” about technology and social media. Her YouTube channel, “Momma Wedel,” documents her family’s “crazy Texas life” with home videos titled “TICKLED TO DEATH,” “LITTLE GIRL PICKING HER BOOGERS,” “NINJA MOM SNOOPS,” “SILLY STRING PRANK,” and “WEIGHT LOSS FAIL.”1
On January 24, 2012, Jennifer departed from her usual wisecracking family fare. The vivacious online denizen had spotted a “little red telephone” symbol on her YouTube account dashboard.
“What the heck is that?” she thought.2
When she clicked on the icon, she was directed to a solicitation for citizen videos as part of a special event tied to President Obama’s State of the Union Address. YouTube’s parent company, Google, launched the public contest in cooperation with the White House—a high-visibility opportunity
for the social media giant to promote its online video chat service, Google+ Hangout.
Jennifer read the invitation:
If you could hang out with President Obama, what would you ask him? Would your question be about jobs or unemployment? The threat of nuclear weapons? Immigration reform? Whatever your question is, submit it on YouTube for the opportunity to ask the President directly in a special interview over a Google+ Hangout from the White House.3
Momma Wedel marched to her dimly lit bedroom and recorded a twenty-second video. With minimal makeup and noticeable bags under her eyes, the busy wife and mom of two young daughters pointed a wobbly camera toward herself, licked her lips, and began:
“Mr. President, my husband was laid off three years ago. He has an electrical engineering degree and has yet to find a job,” she divulged, shaking her head.
“My question to you,” Jennifer addressed the commander-in-chief bluntly with a slight southern drawl, “is how are you preventing foreigners with H-1B visas from getting American citizens’ jobs?”
• • •
Foreign nationals who enter the U.S. legally are admitted as immigrants (aliens seeking permanent residence), nonimmigrants (such as students, diplomats, tourists, and workers), or refugees/asylees. The H-1B is a nonimmigrant guest worker visa created in 1990.4
The employer—not the foreigner or a family sponsor—makes the visa application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security. An initial H-1B visa is issued for three years. It can be renewed for another three years. If the H-1B worker’s
employer sponsors him or her for legal permanent residency, the H-1B visa can be extended in one-year increments until a green card is granted.
H-1B visas are restricted to “specialty” occupations that normally require a college degree or equivalent professional experience—plus, believe it or not, fashion models.5
About three-fifths of H-1B visas go to workers in computer-related occupations. Most of the rest go to engineers, scientists, mathematicians, architects, surveyors, elementary and secondary school teachers, nurses, physical therapists, accountants, physicians, and those Beautiful People.
There are three steps required to get an H-1B visa. First, the employer files a Labor Condition Application (LCA) with the Department of Labor. The LCA certifies that an employer will comply with all the labor protection requirements of the H-1B program. Filing an LCA is a simple process that can be done online and costs nothing. Congress requires the Department of Labor to approval all LCAs within seven days as long as the form is filled out correctly. The Department of Labor is also prohibited from subsequently reviewing approved LCAs. As we’ll explain in more detail later, the LCA process is nothing more than a meaningless paper-shuffling exercise. Next, the employer files an I-129 “Petition for Non-Immigrant Worker Form.” This complex and costly process usually requires hiring a lawyer. If the petition is approved, the last step is for the worker to obtain the visa from the State Department. Consular offices may require an in-person visit, interview, fingerprinting, and document review. The successful applicant receives a visa stamp in his passport and can now enter the U.S.
The media often use inflated terms such as “best and brightest” and “highly-skilled” to describe H-1B workers. In reality the standards are low. A bachelor’s degree, even a mail-order one from an Indian diploma mill, is all it takes to qualify.6
As tech journalist Robert X. Cringely points out, “when Bill Gates complained about not being able
to import enough top technical people for Microsoft, he wasn’t talking about geniuses, just normal coders.”7
There is a visa for the world’s truly talented high achievers called the O visa, which is uncapped and available only to “individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement” in the fields of “sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements” who seek “to enter the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability.”8
Google, Apple, and other top tech companies “will take as many of the O visa candidates as they can get, but there just aren’t that many who qualify, which is why quotas aren’t required,” Cringely explained. “So when Microsoft—or Boeing, for that matter—says a limitation on H-1B visas is keeping them from getting top talent, they don’t mean it in the way that they imply. If a prospective employee is really top talent—the kind of engineer who can truly do things others simply can’t—there isn’t much keeping the company from hiring that person under the O visa program. H-1B visas are about journeyman techies and nothing else.”9
• • •
Darin Wedel’s LinkedIn page is impressive.10
Damned impressive. He’s an American tech company’s ideal job candidate. Or rather, he should be.
The science whiz graduated from Texas A&M in 1995 with a BS in electrical engineering. He worked as a process engineer for Hitachi Semiconductor and Dominion Conductor. In 2000, he joined Texas Instruments, the renowned chipmaker whose products range from your high school kid’s graphing calculator to microcontrollers, data converters, processors, and integrated circuits used in touch screens, medical devices, surveillance cameras, tablets, and cars. He is “skilled
in complex Electro-Mechanical, vacuum, gas delivery, materials, and quality control systems,” “adept at learning complex hardware and software,” and “skilled in leading edge manufacturing techniques: Six Sigma, SPC, DOE, ISO, FMEA, Predictive Maintenance, defect controls, material inspection, process optimization, capital equipment installation, and equipment development.”
Wedel co-led a cutting-edge development project evaluating a “liquid chemical process precursor” for “next generation silicone nitride film.”11
Silicone nitride film, which resists moisture and oxygen, protects the surface of semiconductors. Wedel’s work resulted in a valuable patented process for his company. Scaling the corporate ladder, he spearheaded development of more than forty complex electromechanical systems and manufacturing improvements.
The Texas Instruments electrical engineer prospered. He bought a nice home and lived the middle-class American dream, which talking heads in both political parties bloviate about every election cycle.
But after nine years of working hard and playing by the rules, Darin got laid off.
To the newspapers, he was just another bloodless statistic. “Layoffs spread to more sectors of the economy,” the New York Times blandly reported in January 2009.12
“Tech layoff parade continues: TI cuts 12 percent of workforce,” ZDNet.com
The company slashed some thirty-four hundred positions through direct pink slips or “voluntary retirement” offers to “older” workers.
To his own company, he was a faceless liability. After nine successful years in the heart of the Dallas–Fort Worth tech corridor, the Lone Star State’s own Silicon Valley, TI tossed forty-three-year-old Darin into the swirling currents of the highly skilled unemployed—and threw his family into financial and emotional chaos.
• • •
To fully appreciate the political fraud and continuing bureaucratic molestation of America’s nonimmigrant visa programs, we must first travel back to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (known as the McCarran-Walter Act). Congress enacted the Democratic-sponsored bill over President Truman’s veto to manage the flow of foreigners into America. With the Cold War and communist threat foremost on the nation’s mind, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers approved McCarran-Walter’s continuation of a national origins quota system (in place since 1924), combined with an orderly process to handle immigrants based on humanitarian reasons and a new set of visa preferences based on family reunification or skills.14
The law created two main guest worker visas: H-1 for guest workers with distinguished ability and H-2 for ordinary guest workers. (A third category was created for trainees.) The H-1 and H-2 visas had one feature in common and one major difference. Both visas were strictly guest worker programs. The alien had to maintain a foreign residence to qualify. The H-1 visa differed from the H-2 visa in that it did not require showing that Americans were not available for the job. It is clear from the legislative history15
that Congress originally intended that the H-1 visa would be restricted to truly extraordinary people, such as distinguished professors and other “outstanding scholars, scientists, and teachers” of “exceptional ability whose services are needed in the country.”16
Lawmakers mistakenly assumed that for a small cadre of high-level intellectual elites and professional heavyweights, domestic protections would not be necessary.
If you read the plain text of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, you would expect that a Nobel Prize winner coming to lecture at a university would fall into the H-1 category and an ordinary engineer would fall into the H-2 category. This turned out not to be the case. A series of backdoor agency decisions wiped out labor protections in
the H-2 program for many U.S. workers. The then–Immigration and Naturalization Service (now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) unilaterally started classifying anyone in a profession as falling under the H-1 category. The INS decided that any alien engineer deserved to be classified as a worker with “distinguished merit and ability”—thus qualifying him for an H-1 visa, even though Congress clearly intended the H-2 visa for such workers. Through that process, the INS gutted the labor protections of the H-2 visa. Expansive and overbroad agency interpretations have persistently plagued our immigration system, empowering unelected bureaucrats at INS, its successor, USCIS, and the State Department to undermine and sabotage congressional intent.17
In 1990, Congress finally addressed the H-1 visa abuse epidemic. A House Judiciary Committee report noted at the time that administrative decision-making run amok “meant that little known entertainers and their accompanying crews [qualify] within this category, and aliens with nothing more than a baccalaureate degree have been deemed “distinguished.”18
Politicians responded to the administrative sabotage of the previous H-1 program by placing specific limits on guest worker admissions.19
The Immigration Act of 1990 amended the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act to create the current H-1B visa program.20
Congress originally capped the number of H-1B visas at 65,000 per year, but the cap has changed several times thanks to the influence of the nonstop Cheap Foreign Labor Lobby. The absurdly named American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 increased the cap to 115,000 for fiscal year 1999 and fiscal year 2000. The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act of 2000 (AC21) further increased the limit to 195,000 for fiscal year 2001 through fiscal year 2003. In addition, AC21 permanently exempted all
foreign guest workers hired by institutions of higher education, as well as nonprofit and government-research organizations, from the cap. (See Figure 1.1.)
Beltway crapweasels in the House unanimously passed the 2000 bill on a voice vote that took place at night with only about forty members present. The vote took place after the leadership announced there would be no more votes for the day and most members had gone home.21
It is not known who was present voting for the bill. The dark-of-night adoption of these anti–American worker statutes is a habit of feckless politicians in both parties. Congressional leaders take great pains to avoid having direct votes on H-1B.
In fiscal year 2004, the cap reverted to its original level of 65,000. But the H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004 allowed for an additional 20,000 visas each year for foreign workers holding a master’s degree or higher from an American institution of higher education to be exempted from the numerical cap limitation. In addition, in 2004, as a result of free trade agreements, more statutory changes allowed for up to 6,800 of the 65,000 H-1B visas to be set aside for workers from Chile and Singapore.22
To prevent members from being held accountable, this H-1B expansion was buried in a massive budget bill.
FIGURE 1.1 CHANGES IN THE H-1B CAP OVER TIME
Old habits die hard. In 2015, Washington insiders again called on Congress to slip a new H-1B increase into a budget bill.23
Sen. Charles Grassley rightly cautions against the Big Tech quota busters. “We’ll hear arguments all day as to why the cap on H-1B visas should be raised, but nobody should be fooled,” he said. “There are highly skilled American workers being left behind, searching for jobs that are being filled by H-1B visa holders.”24
• • •
Across the country, American tech workers like Darin in their thirties and forties face rampant discrimination based on their age and citizenship status. (Yes, dear readers in your thirties and forties, welcome to geezerhood.)
U.S. computer workers forty and older are more likely to be laid off than those under forty; take longer to find a job after being laid off; and, when rehired, receive a substantial loss in wages.25
The TechCrunch blog calls it “Silicon Valley’s Dark Secret.”26
Recruiters and investors lust after the “cachet of the young entrepreneur.”27
At a tech conference in 2007 in which he advised companies not to hire workers over thirty, baby-faced Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg infamously bragged: “Young people are just smarter.”28
(Zuckerberg, by the way, turns thirty-one this year.)
Once they’re out of their twenties, tech workers turn to makeover consultants and wardrobe stylists to maintain freshness. Piercings, biker boots, eyelid lifts. Whatever it takes.29
And that’s why the Botox-dispensing business is booming for San Francisco cosmetic surgeon Dr. Seth Matarasso, whose clientele now mainly consists of anxious American tech workers trying to rejuvenate their looks.30
“It’s really morphed into, ‘Hey, I’m forty years old and I have to get in front of a board of fresh-faced kids. I can’t look like I have a wife and two-point-five kids and a mortgage,’ ” he divulged.31
Human resources departments have blatantly flouted anti–age discrimination laws by routinely excluding the applications of older workers on the grounds that the applicants have “experience beyond the range stated in the job ad.” A “senior programmer” in job advertisements requires only three to five years of experience (e.g., a twenty-five- to twenty-seven-year-old).32
Fortune magazine blew the whistle on job ads from Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Dropbox, and video game maker Electronic Arts33
explicitly favoring “recent grads” over older workers.
Caught with its pants down, Electronic Arts defended the ads to Fortune by claiming it hires people of all ages into its new grad program. “To prove the point,” the magazine reported, “the company said those accepted into the program range in age from 21 to 35. But the company soon had second thoughts about releasing such information, which shows a total absence of middle-aged hires in the grad program, and asked Fortune to withhold that detail from publication.”
Fortunately, the Fortune journalist did his job and disclosed the truth instead of burying it. But that’s an exception, not the rule, in most mainstream media coverage of the Great American Tech Worker Sellout.
So, where are jobs like Darin’s going? To younger, cheaper, foreign workers. About 75 percent of H-1B workers are under thirty-five years old.34
Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at U.C. Davis, has extensively documented how “employers use H-1B to avoid hiring older (i.e., over age 35) U.S. citizens and permanent residents.”
While Texas Instruments lays off thousands of American tech employees like Darin, its top officials have busied themselves pushing for “immigration reform”—Washington’s overworn euphemism for opening up the pipeline to low-cost foreign workers.
• • •
Before 1990, there had been a clear distinction between nonimmigrant guest workers and immigrants. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 required H visa holders to have “a residence in a foreign country which he has no intention of abandoning.” The general rule was that a guest worker could not switch and become an immigrant without returning home.
The Immigration Act of 1990, by contrast, specifically authorized aliens with immigration intent to be admitted on H-1B guest worker visas.35
The “dual intent” doctrine gave these guest workers the option to change their minds and change their status after they entered the country, but banned them from coming if their “sole intent” was to use their visa as a vehicle to immigrate permanently. What then is an H-1B worker—a nonimmigrant guest worker or an immigrant? Aliens should come to the U.S. either to visit or to immigrate. They should know where they stand when they arrive at our shores. Visitors should be required to return to their home before applying to be an immigrant. The current system of dual intent that permits “temporary” workers to apply for permanent immigration is inherently irrational. Allowing those admitted under the lower standard of nonimmigrant (tourists, students, etc.) then allowing them to apply for the higher standard of immigration creates backlogs by its very nature. It’s like the New Jersey Turnpike merging from ten lanes to six lanes.
Appallingly but unsurprisingly, the federal government does not maintain an active count of unique H-1B visa holders. USCIS uses two separate computer systems that are incapable of exchanging data to track H-1B workers.36
A rough estimate, based upon the number of visa approvals over three years, is that there are about 650,000 H-1B workers legally in the U.S.37
Figure 1.2 shows the number of new H-1Bs approved over the last fifteen years.
Figure 1.2 H-1B Petitions Approved for Initial Employment
It is impossible to know how many people admitted on H-1B visas have overstayed their visas to become illegal aliens. As Michelle has documented in her book Invasion and in her syndicated columns for the past fifteen years, Congress has repeatedly mandated a nationwide visa entry-exit system to track legal short-term visa holders during the past two decades. But outrageously, one has yet to be built—even in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which were perpetrated in part by several illegal alien visa overstayers—thanks to a toxic alliance of civil liberties absolutists, immigration lawyers, and ethnic lobbies.38
The current “US-VISIT” database, which processes biometric data upon foreign visitors’ entry, suffers from widespread lack of data integrity and failed interoperability.39
The Government Accountability Office reported a backlog of 1.6 million “unmatched” arrival records, which means they had yet to verify that those visa holders had actually departed.40
To this day, there is still no exit control system in place, and DHS continues to drag its feet on planning and implementation. Universities, the travel industry, civil liberties absolutists, ethnic lobbies,
and politicians in both parties have deliberately sabotaged efforts to get it up and running.41
An estimated 40–45 percent of the current illegal immigrant population in the U.S. consists of foreign visa overstayers who entered on valid visas and then never left.42
• • •
In 2008, the year before Darin lost his job, Texas Instruments spent $4 million on D.C. lobbyists,43
many of them crusading “to increase visas for highly skilled foreign workers that the tech industry says is needed to fill vacant positions.” It hired three lobbyists to push for eight different bills and one regulation designed to increase the amount of foreign labor. TI president Richard Templeton joined the “Compete America” coalition to push for more temporary H-1B work permits for foreigners and to sound the alarm about the so-called STEM worker “shortage.” Paula Collins, then–vice president of government relations for Texas Instruments, became cochair of the industry group, which includes Accenture, Cisco, Google, Intel, and Microsoft.
Rather than focus on keeping their own high-skilled American workers, these business executives made retention of foreign visa holders their top priority. TI’s Collins crusaded for legislation that would allow foreign-born college graduates with advanced technical degrees to be exempted from congressional H-1B visa caps. “To remain competitive,” she claimed, “high-tech firms need to be able to hire and retain the best science and engineering talent in the world, especially graduates of U.S. universities.”
But what about native-born, highly skilled, and experienced homegrown talents like Darin Wedel?
“Our own best and brightest are squeezed out of the market once they become ‘expensive,’ ” Ron Hira, Economic Policy Institute
research associate and associate professor at Howard University, has concluded. “The industry’s claim that American kids don’t study enough math and science is a red herring and is rank hypocrisy, with the layoffs of thousands of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who were math and science whizzes as kids.”44
Texas Instruments’ vice president of human resources, Darla Whitaker, admitted that her company did not have any problem finding Americans with bachelor’s degrees in engineering.45
At a congressional hearing on the alleged STEM worker shortage, she claimed the real problem was in finding Americans with advanced degrees (master’s or doctorates) in engineering. When Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas) asked her why Americans don’t pursue graduate degrees, Whitaker replied, “I don’t really know the exact reason why they don’t.”
According to Science magazine, the reason many engineers don’t pursue graduate degrees is simple: The degrees aren’t worth the money. “[I]n purely financial terms,” the magazine reported, “the case for graduate training is not compelling, and the short- to medium-term sacrifices a career in science can demand cause even some passionate scientists and trainees to reconsider their plans before they reach the financial break-even point.”46
In other words, salaries for engineers with advanced degrees aren’t high enough to justify the investment. And why is that? Because the importation of foreign guest workers with advanced degrees is suppressing wages.
This is exactly what an internal report of the National Science Foundation predicted in 1989, when it forecast that a deluge of foreign doctoral students would hold salaries down—and drive American STEM bachelor’s degree holders into better-paying jobs outside their fields of study after graduation.47
This, NSF noted, would lead to a vicious cycle of American STEM PhDs seeking “alternative career paths” or educational pursuits outside their original areas of study,
leading tech companies to clamor for more foreign PhD students to fill the gap they helped create.
And therein lies the answer to Rep. Poe’s question to Ms. Whitaker. The diversion of talented American engineers away from graduate study is precisely the result of Big Tech’s insatiable appetite for low-wage foreign workers.
As Roger Coker, Texas Instruments’ director of staffing for the United States, told U.S. News & World Report back in 1999, the company was “using every trick in the book to fight labor cost creep” by lobbying Congress to “allow more foreign engineers and designers to take jobs in the United States on temporary H-1B visas.”48
A decade later, Darin Wedel’s number was up. The very same year he was laid off, Texas Instruments was lobbying President Obama to ease restrictions on foreign workers. And three years after getting the pink slip, the electrical engineer was still searching for permanent work.
Message from American tech companies to American tech workers: We’re just not that into you.
• • •
Companies in the business of offshore outsourcing are the largest users of H-1B workers, accounting for more than 50 percent of the annual base visa cap of sixty-five thousand.49
They use H-1B workers to help transition IT operations from the U.S. to overseas locations such as India, where wages are lower.
Table 1.1 lists the thirteen largest recipients of H-1B visas in 2013.50
Of the thirteen, six are based in India: Infosys, Tata, Wipro, HCL America, Tech Mahindra, and Larsen & Toubro. One—Cognizant—was founded in India but moved its headquarters to the U.S. Five—Syntel, IBM, iGate, Deloitte, and Accenture (formerly Anderson Consulting)—offer offshoring services and have large presences in India. Even Microsoft entered the business of selling offshore
development from India.51
It has also moved internal development overseas. At an internal presentation titled “Thinking About India,” Microsoft vice president Brian Valentine urged employees to “pick something to move offshore today.”52
coincidentally, a majority of H-1B workers—65 percent in fiscal year 2013—are from India.53
In computer-related occupations, the proportion of Indian workers is even higher—nearly 86 percent in 2014, according to an August 2015 report published in Computerworld.54
The magazine’s analysis showed Tata, Cognizant, Infosys, Wipro, Accenture, Tech Mahindra, IBM, Syntel, Larsen & Toubro, and HCL as the top ten companies winning H-1B visa approvals for computer workers in 2014.55
TABLE 1.1 LARGEST RECIPIENTS OF H-1B VISAS IN FY 2013
Offers Offshoring Services?
Larsen & Toubro
A few days after she posted her “Dear Mr. President” YouTube clip, Jennifer received a phone call after work. The stay-at-home mom had
taken a job at a nearby State Farm office—first as a secretary, then rising to full-time insurance agent—to help pay the bills while Darin searched for a new job. The caller? A Google employee who informed the young mom that she had been chosen to pose her challenge to President Obama. Face to virtual face.
Naturally, Jennifer took to YouTube.
“YAAAAAAY! WOO-HOO! I got chosen!”
Bubbling with excitement, Jennifer informed friends, family, and strangers on YouTube of the news in a January 28, 2012, video titled “I AM INTERVIEWING OBAMA.” She talked into a dashboard camera while driving—and without missing a beat.
“If you don’t know what an H-1B visa is,” she breezily explained as trees and telephone poles flashed by, “it’s basically a work visa. And not just any work visa. It’s a work visa for foreigners who have college educations to get jobs [over here] that require at least a bachelor’s degree or more.”
With a small sigh, she distilled the core issue for American workers more astutely and succinctly than most elected officials in Washington.
“Well, the problem with that is,” Jennifer grimaced, “when the economy [got] hit hard, a lot of big corporations laid off a lot of people, including my husband. And what they have started doing, because it’s cheaper labor, is hiring people with H-1B visas. And it is completely and utterly wrong!
“I am not in any way bashing H-1B visa holders,” Jennifer made clear. “And I very much believe in the American dream. Having foreigners come here and find freedom and find work, you know, that’s what this country was founded on. So I’m not at all bashing anyone who is on the H-1B program. But what I am bashing is the government for not steppin’ in and sayin’ okay, well, we have a cap of sixty-five thousand a year, we need to lower this and let more Americans—especially ones who got laid off!—get a chance at getting these jobs
and really kinda, you know, slap the hands of the corporations that are lobbying for this.”
No doubt about it: Jennifer was ready for prime time and prepped to take on the president.
Given Google’s own advocacy of increasing H-1B visas, you might wonder how in the world Jennifer’s question got picked. Google Hangout host Steve Grove says the company took into account a combination of votes and other factors. In Jennifer’s case, her bubbly personality and articulate delivery shone through.
The busy mom hurried home to set up for a rehearsal with Google employees sent to her house.
Jennifer told her YouTube viewers the day before her historic hangout that she was excited beyond belief. Though she identified herself as a Republican, she still relished the “once in a lifetime” opportunity to speak with the president, and she hadn’t been happy with how either political party had dealt with H-1Bs. “I don’t care if you voted for him or not. Talking to the president is cool. I mean, you know, how many people get to ask him a question? Not a lot of people get to do that.”
• • •
Back in Washington, D.C., White House speechwriters huddled over President Obama’s edits to his last State of the Union Address of his first term. Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser, explained in a “behind the scenes” video that his boss wanted to focus on “getting more Americans back to the top of high-paying, durable jobs that last.”56
Championing the “middle class” would be another big theme. (When is it not?)
Another Obama aide emphasized the need to give a sense of “humanity” and “reality” to the speech by highlighting real people to “make a concrete connection.”57
As an extra boost to sell the president’s policies, the White House handpicked twenty-one special guests
to sit in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box during the address. The invitees were supposedly “representative of America.” One of the lucky chosen: Instagram cofounder Mike Krieger.
“You don’t say no to the White House,” the tech startup guru excitedly told CNN when he received the call three days before President Obama’s speech.58
He flew into D.C. and immediately embarked on a whirlwind with the administration’s top tech bureaucrats before joining the First Lady for the festivities—which, of course, he Instagrammed.
Why did the Obamas tap Mike Krieger and not, say, his cofounder Kevin Systrom, the American-born, Stanford University–trained engineer who originally conceived Instagram and recruited Krieger?59
In its announcement of the First Lady’s 2012 State of the Union guest list, the East Wing spotlighted Krieger’s immigrant history. He was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and moved to California in 2004 to attend Stanford University, where he studied computer science and cognitive science on an F-1 student visa. After graduation, he worked for a year through the Optional Practical Training program, later applying for and receiving an H-1B visa at instant messaging firm Meebo. In 2010, Systrom enlisted him to cofound Instagram,60
which they sold to Facebook for $1 billion in 2012. Three years later, Krieger secured a green card.61
The Instagram cofounder has lobbied Washington aggressively to raise the caps on H-1B visas, expand work training opportunities for foreign STEM students in the U.S., and increase green cards for foreign graduate students.62
His personal history bolsters the popular Big Tech narrative that foreign H-1B workers are brilliant entrepreneurial resources, brimming with billion-dollar, job-creating startup ideas.
CNN dutifully explained that the Brazilian wunderkind’s attendance at the 2012 State of the Union Address “represented the need for legislation that would assist non–U.S. citizen startup founders looking to build a company in America.”63
Perched in the First Lady’s
gallery, Krieger applauded as Obama lamented that foreign students who “staff our labs” and “start new businesses” come to the U.S. “to study business and science and engineering, but as soon as they get their degree, we send them home to invent new products and create new jobs somewhere else.”
Obama shook his head and raised his hands in exasperation: “That doesn’t make sense.”64
The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness echoed White House and tech industry talking points with its sweeping assertion that “highly skilled immigrants create jobs, they don’t take jobs.”65
Press reports trumpeted the factoid that “More Than a Third of the Top US Tech Companies Were Founded by People Born Outside the Country.”66
Chicken Little pundits wailed that “startups are starved for engineers and other workers.”67
Stanford University president John Hennessy complained that “forcing” foreign graduate students “to leave, rather than allowing them to stay and add their skills and knowledge to our economy, is one of the most short-sighted policies we have.”68
As for those statistics on immigrants and tech companies, it all depends on how you slice it. The frequently cited figure from venture capitalist and H-1B crusader Mary Meeker, which purports to show that 36 percent of America’s top twenty-five tech companies were founded by immigrants, misleads the casual reader into assuming that only 64 percent of companies were founded by native-born Americans. However, Ms. Meeker used a trick with numbers; she counted as “founded by immigrants” any company that has at least one of its often multiple founders who was born abroad. But that trick works both ways. All you have to do is flip her numbers around; instead of ignoring the native-born Americans, ignore the immigrants. From that, one can determine that native-born Americans founded 92 percent of the companies studied.69
Darin Wedel’s former employer Texas Instruments, for example,
had four founders: John Erik Jonsson (born in Brooklyn, N.Y.), Eugene McDermott (born in Brooklyn, N.Y.), Patrick Haggarty (born in Harvey, N.D.), and Cecil Green (born in Whitefield, England). Meeker ignored Jonsson, McDermott, and Haggarty in favor of Green and dubbed Texas Instruments a company founded by immigrants. Do the opposite and ignore Green. Voilà! Texas Instruments becomes a company founded by native-born Americans.
That statistical deception is only the first misstep in the argument. Next comes the non sequitur. The fact that Sergey Brin came to the United States as a child and years later became a cofounder of Google in no way supports the argument that America needs more H-1B guest workers.
Instagram’s Krieger is an anomaly. Stringent employment rules bind H-1B visa holders to the companies that sponsor them. H-1B workers who want to start new businesses can only do so under limited circumstances in which the startup can “provide evidence that there is a separate Board of Directors which has the ability to hire, fire, pay, supervise or otherwise control the beneficiary’s employment.” This is because an H-1B worker must be an employee of the startup.70
Unfortunately for homegrown tech startup founders and displaced American tech workers, President Obama and his State of the Union speechwriting team had no interest in showcasing their stories. There is no Laid-Off American Worker Lobby to funnel cash into D.C. coffers. Obama’s deep-pocketed tech industry donors, meanwhile, had been clamoring relentlessly for more H-1B visas and specialty green cards to feed their foreign worker pipeline. It bought them seats at the table, backstage access, and choice words on Obama’s teleprompter.
As politicians in both parties applauded, Obama punctuated his 2012 State of the Union Address with a call for “comprehensive immigration reform”—that is, legislative action on behalf of foreign students, illegal aliens, and legal temporary foreign workers.
In the First Lady’s box, Mike Krieger beamed proudly as the handpicked representative of “immigrant-founded startups” that, in truth, are (1) as much American-founded as they are immigrant-founded; (2) not representative of the modest skills and achievements of most H-1B visa holders; and (3) expedient distractions from the dire impact that the foreign tech flood is having on American workers.
Outside the Beltway, families like the Wedels had no place or space in President Obama’s manufactured reality. But six days after the 2012 State of the Union Address, Momma Wedel would burst that bubble—big time.
• • •
With pictures of her two young daughters hanging on a cheery, yellow-painted wall behind her, Jennifer faced a webcam in her living room and spoke directly to President Obama.
“Hi, Mr. President. My husband has an engineering degree with over ten years of experience, and he was laid off three years and has yet to find a permanent job in his field. 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 job?”
Obama, clearly flummoxed, immediately started to filibuster.
“Well, Jennifer,” the president began, “I don’t know your husband’s specialty, but I can tell you that there’s a huge demand around the country for engineers.”
Well, yes: There’s a huge demand. But only for cheaper, younger, foreign engineers.
“Now, obviously, there are different kinds of engineers,” he babbled, before plugging his government infrastructure spending to put civil engineers to work. Then he pivoted like a Bolshoi Ballet dancer.
“Now, what industry tells me is that they don’t have enough highly skilled engineers. If your husband’s in that field, then we should get his résumé and I’ll
forward it to some of these companies that tell me they can’t find enough engineers in this field.”
The cameras cut to Google Hangout host Steve Grove chuckling. Jennifer, however, didn’t think her hubby’s job loss was a laughing matter. She astutely observed after the event: “I just think I stumped him a little and he wanted me to hush about it.”71
Ignoring the facts just laid out to him by the wife of an engineer who couldn’t find work for the last three years, President Obama yammered again that “as a basic matter, there’s a huge demand for engineers around the country right now.”
“Um, I understand that,” Wedel tried to interject politely.
“And so . . .” Obama prattled on.
“But,” Wedel jumped in, seizing the moment, “given the list [of job openings] that you’re getting, we’re not getting that. I mean, you said in the State of the Union for business leaders to ask themselves what can they do to bring jobs back to America.”
“Right,” Obama mumbled.
Wedel challenged the president: “But why do you think the H-1B is so popular with big corporations?”
Instead of confronting the reality of the Big Tech preference for lower-wage foreign workers over Americans, Obama dodged.
“Jennifer, can I ask you what kind of engineer your husband is?”
“He’s a semiconductor engineer.”
Obama, unable to cope with the cognitive dissonance of what industry was telling him and what Darin had suffered, evaded Jennifer’s question again.
“See, it’s interesting to me,” he started, then backtracked, “and I meant what I said, if you send me your husband’s résumé, I’d be interested in finding out exactly what’s happening right there, because the word that we’re getting is that somebody in that kind of high-tech field,
that kind of engineer, should be able to find something, uh, right away.”
The president persisted in showing just how out of touch and clueless he was about how H-1B actually works.
“[T]he H-1B should be reserved only for those companies who say they cannot find somebody in that particular field,” he said. “So, that wouldn’t necessarily apply if, in fact, there are a lot of highly skilled American engineers in that position.” While H-1B visas should be reserved for jobs that Americans are not filling, that is not how the program works. And when it comes to actual legislative change, Obama has only pushed for even more foreign workers with no changes to the broken system.
Jennifer again tried to inject reality, but the Google host wanted to move on. The next questioner, a young man from Detroit, started his question by thanking Obama for “saving the auto industry.”
Twenty minutes later, Jennifer couldn’t hold her tongue. President Obama was urging a group of high school students to get college degrees in order to secure good-paying jobs. When one young man expressed anxiety about not being able to find a job even after graduating from college, Obama bizarrely lectured the students not to “goof off” and to seek “growth areas” in higher education in order to “make a good investment.”
Jennifer’s husband did all the right things when he earned his electrical engineering degree at Texas A&M. A lot of good it was doing him now. She jumped in to point out that a lot of responsible kids “have seen their parents get laid off. . . . And because of the downturn . . . they see their father not even able to have a job . . . and it’s affecting them!”
Following President Obama’s gimmicky offer to help, the Wedels were inundated with press inquiries. Jennifer’s gutsy willingness to take on the White House caught the attention of Politico, The Atlantic,
CNN, CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC, and every major Texas newspaper and TV station. The Republican National Committee exploited the opportunity to needle Obama the headhunter with a website soliciting résumés from other laid-off workers. But as the Wedels knew, the GOP was just as culpable as the Obama White House for enabling the H-1B racket.
After White House staffers passed his résumé around, Darin Wedel received a few job offers. But they came from out of state, in places like New York City, where the cost of living was prohibitive for a middle-class family of four. Another complication: A custody arrangement with one of Darin’s daughters from a previous marriage prevented him from leaving North Texas. Some open-borders pundits used the Wedels’ immobility as an excuse to dismiss Jennifer’s confrontation with the president entirely. “Immigrants did not take your job,” sneered a Cato Institute analyst, who blamed the family for sticking “to the Dallas–Fort Worth area where Jennifer held a job.” Never mind that it was a job she was forced to seek because H-1B-hungry Texas Instruments laid off Darin in the first place.72
U.C. Davis professor Matloff points out that even with the Wedels’ inability to move, “If the hype regarding a seller’s market for engineers were true, Wedel should have been able to find something in that region”73
—which, remember, is not just any swath of flyover country, but the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and a dynamic technology region. By Texas Instruments president Richard Templeton’s own estimate, “In Texas alone, the economy is poised to add nearly 760,000 STEM-related jobs within the next four years.”74
According to the Dallas Business Journal, twenty-one of the world’s two thousand largest companies are based in the Dallas–Fort Worth metro area.75
Semiconductor firms with facilities in the area include not only Texas Instruments, but also Maxim Integrated Products, STMicroelectronics,
Quorvo/TriQuint Semiconductor, and Diodes Inc. All employ H-1B guest workers. None hired Darin Wedel.
Through the sheer force of her candid and bold questioning of President Obama, Jennifer Wedel succeeded in disrupting the administration’s carefully crafted economic narratives. At a White House press briefing the day after the Google Hangout, press secretary Jay Carney opened by touting his boss’s “Startup America initiative” and peddling “important visa reforms that remove undue obstacles for high-skill immigrants and recent graduates that contribute to our economic competitiveness.”76
Some of the reporters peppered Carney with questions about Darin’s résumé:
“Is this something that he plans to do now when he campaigns and hears people’s individual stories, to get down to that level of collecting résumés? Is that something that he thinks is part of the job of President?”77
“What exactly is going to happen to the résumé that—from this guy? And what are you going to do about the inevitable tens of thousands of résumés that are going to be sent here because of that?”78
Unlike Jennifer, alas, the professional journalists appeared to know nothing about the crux of the H-1B debate and squandered their opportunity to follow up with their own reality checks. Carney asserted that Obama’s exchange with the Texas mom demonstrated his “sincere interest and concern in the experiences of folks out in the country and how they’re dealing with what remains a very tough economy.”79
Yet, a day after his exchange with Jennifer, who asked President Obama to put American workers first, the White House announced multiple executive actions loosening foreign tech worker visa regulations. These included expanding eligibility for a seventeen-month extension
of foreign student visas for students with a prior degree in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field and providing work authorization for spouses of certain H-1B holders. The White House also altered visa rules for “specialty occupation” foreign workers from Australia, Singapore, and China and unveiled plans for a new initiative to discuss how to maximize current immigration laws’ potential to attract foreign entrepreneurial talent.80
The White House press corps could have challenged Carney to explain exactly how the president reconciled his “sincere” compassion for the Wedels with the actions he was taking to make it even harder for experienced American engineers like Darin to find full-time employment in their fields. Instead, an identity-politics zealot masquerading as a journalist asked this stunningly idiotic (and ungrammatical) question:
Is the President concerned that there might be a feeling of xenophobia or something going on out there when the economy is tight and there are some concerns that reflect in that question from the woman?81
How about the blatant reverse “xenophobia” of American companies publishing job ads excluding American workers? Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, U.S. workers, those legally entitled to work in the United States, are supposed to be a protected class. A decade ago, the Programmers Guild (John’s group representing U.S. information technology workers) blew the whistle on employment listings at Dice.com
that explicitly stated: “We require candidates for H1B from India,” “We sponsor GC [green card] and we do prefer H1B holders,” “We offer H1B services for L1 Visa Holders and new H1B for the right candidates in India” and “H1B -From India-Multiple positions.”82
Here’s another example: In 2006, iGate Mastech, a company with large Indian offshore centers, placed thirty online job ads asking for only H-1B visa holders, including this one for a Java programmer in the Midwest: “Only H-1s Apply, and should be willing to transfer H-1B.”83
In response to a complaint by the Programmers Guild, the Justice Department spanked iGate with a forty-five-thousand-dollar fine. But it’s the tip of the iceberg. John filed about one hundred discrimination complaints against H-1B employers based on his groups’ findings. About one-third of the complaints resulted in settlements. The rest of the companies were not covered by antidiscrimination provisions because they had fewer than four employees.
The Justice Department’s fines have done little to deter violators since then. In 2012, a separate IT recruitment watchdog group, Bright Future Jobs, published an analysis of one hundred IT ads on Dice.com
restricting applicants by national origin. The group reported that 37 percent of the ads “made no mention of IT job terms or skills in the ad title. Instead, they contained only references to visa types.”84
In other words: Foreign workers only need apply. “The public is led to believe that companies can’t find Americans to fill high-tech jobs when, in fact, they are not searching for Americans—as these ads show,” Bright Future Jobs founder Donna Conroy warned.85
Conroy’s activism forced Dice.com
to crack down on H-1B-only jobs. Unfortunately, the H-1B-only recruitment has just moved elsewhere. In fact, there are entire websites devoted to posting jobs in which companies scout out foreign workers.
But hey, let’s not let reality intrude on the White House press secretary and the White House press corps. In response to the social justice reporter who asked whether President Obama was concerned that Jennifer Wedel’s questions about H-1B were “xenophobic,” Carney reverted to trite tech industry mumbo-jumbo. Like his boss, Carney
dismissed the facts and evidence before him. Here’s the word salad he tossed at the press briefing:
I think that the President’s position, which you state clearly, is that we need to make it more possible for highly qualified people who are being educated here, or coming from abroad to work here, build businesses here, grow the economy here, create jobs here—that is a message that you hear from business leaders across the country, especially in the fields of technology and engineering and the like, so—which doesn’t take away from this individual’s experience at all, but 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.86
In short: unemployed American engineers? What unemployed American engineers?
While the White House prattles on about the need for more engineers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of engineering jobs has declined from 2,506,000 in 1990 to 2,381,000 in 2013. American engineers are getting a double whammy: fewer jobs and more foreign workers.
In April 2012, three months after the Hope and Change president turned personal job placement officer so ostentatiously offered to help Darin find a job, the Fort Worth Star Telegram reported: “Texas engineer, whose wife sent Obama his résumé, still unemployed.”87
Jennifer told the paper that after an initial flurry of interest, the phone calls and emails died down without any results.
“I did feel we got our hopes up a little,” Jennifer reflected. “I mean, he’s the POTUS. But it seems not even the leader of our country can get [Darin] a job.”88
• • •
“Why’d you favor foreigners over Americans?!”
Reporter Neil Munro of the conservative Daily Caller was standing in the Rose Garden behind a long cordon. It was a bright and muggy Beltway afternoon in mid-June 2012. Journalists and cameramen had been summoned to listen to President Obama announce a radical set of executive actions “to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient, and more just.”89
The media representatives jostled for position.
Unfortunately for the Wedels and thousands of other unemployed American engineers and their families, the new “reforms” had nothing to do with their concerns. Obama was unilaterally granting deportation relief and employment documents to an estimated eight hundred thousand illegal immigrants who call themselves “DREAMers.”
“Effective immediately, the Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people,” Obama proclaimed. “Over the next few months, eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization.”90
Impatient with the dog-and-pony show, Munro shouted out his question, Sam Donaldson style: “Why’d you favor foreigners over Americans?!”
The imperious president insisted: “It was the right thing to do.”
With rising irritation in his voice, he admonished the journalist: “It’s not time for questions, sir.”
It never is. Obama plowed ahead with his statement stocked with platitudes about America being a “nation of immigrants.” Again, he asserted that granting mass amnesty “was the right thing to do for the
American people,” and then called on Congress (over which he had just steamrolled) to “get behind this effort.”
Munro shouted out one last time: “What about American workers who are unemployed while you import foreigners?”
President Obama stalked off without responding.
In one fell swoop, he had officially opened the floodgates to nearly one million illegal aliens now eligible to come “out of the shadows” to apply for college scholarships, student loans, state and federal grants, and jobs. From entry-level to high-skilled work, unemployed Americans faced increasing competition from cheap foreign labor—all at the hands of their own president. The jobless rate stood at a whopping 8.2 percent that summer, with 12.7 million Americans out of work.91
But instead of pressing Obama on the rhetoric versus the reality of his economic policies, Beltway pundits fretted that Munro was rude, unprofessional, and, yes, racist for daring to challenge the president.92
“Would the right-wing press be doing this if we had a white president there?” asked a Democratic hack on MSNBC.93
Munro’s questions were “discourteous,” complained Reuters correspondent and White House Correspondents Association president Caren Bohan. “It’s not the way reporters who cover the White House conduct themselves.94
Perhaps if more members of the White House press corps refused to swallow Obama’s Big Business/Big Government propaganda, it wouldn’t be left to ordinary young moms from the heartland like Jennifer Wedel to do their jobs for them.
• • •
When President Obama’s job search help failed, Wedel took a temporary gig at Alcon Laboratories in Fort Worth. The good news: He finally secured full-time employment in June 2012 and has worked the past
three years for the manufacturer of eye care products doing quality control and assurance. The bad news: With rare exceptions, Democrats and Republicans alike are pressing forward with their plans to drive more American high-tech workers out of their jobs and out of their fields.
Jennifer told reporters she has no regrets about seizing the moment in her few minutes with President Obama. “We didn’t do the interview with the president to get a job. We did it to get a voice for so many Americans who, like my husband, are in the very same situation.”95
• • •
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) gets it.
He knows how the H-1B game is played. For years, he has pushed for real reform of foreign guest worker programs that punish American workers and reward Big Business donors. After Jennifer Wedel confronted President Obama with the plight of her unemployed American engineer husband, Sen. Grassley fired off his own reality check to the White House.
Reiterating his longstanding call for legislative changes to protect American workers first, Grassley wrote:
Your response to Ms. Wedel leads me to believe that you don’t understand the plight of many unemployed high-skill Americans. Mr. Wedel’s situation is all too common. Thousands of qualified Americans remain out of work while companies are incentivized to import foreign workers. I’m concerned that you’re hearing only one side of the story—from businesses who claim that there are better and brighter people abroad.
Despite your online chat and interest in investigating the problem, just last week, your administration proposed rules to “attract and retain highly skilled immigrants.”. . . Your
administration will also provide work authorizations to spouses of H-1B visa holders, thus increasing the competition for many Americans who are looking for work.
It’s astonishing that, at this time of record unemployment, your administration’s solution is to grant more work authorizations to foreign workers. These initiatives will do very little to boost our economy or increase our competitiveness.96
At a time of perilous unemployment and underemployment, politicians and voters have no excuse for remaining ignorant of H-1B’s catastrophic impact on American workers and their wages. Congress has expanded the number of foreign workers on the H-1B program three times since 1998 and allowed H-1B workers to extend their “temporary” employment indefinitely to pursue permanent residency.
These politicians pay lip service to the American Dream, but not once have they acted to counter the systemic displacement of American workers. Instead, Congress responded to H-1B abuses in 1998 by explicitly making it legal for employers to replace Americans with lower-paid H-1B workers in nearly all cases. Despite politicians’ endless encomiums to middle-class workers, they’re at the bottom of Capitol Hill’s priority list.