The use of H-1B visas has emerged as a significant issue in this presidential contest. That might be due, in part, to a Fort Worth, Texas, woman, Jennifer Wedel.
In 2012, Wedel, the wife of an unemployed semiconductor engineer who earned a patent, was selected by Google out of thousands of requests to ask President Barack Obama a question during an online town hall.
Wedel's husband, Darin Wedel, was laid off from Texas Instruments in 2009. Ms. Wedel believed H-1B visa use played a role in the layoff and in creating a difficult job market.
Wedel didn't show any anger when she asked Obama this question:
"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?" (The video is on YouTube. Wedel was the first to ask a question. There were only five people picked to ask questions in that online town hall.)
Obama responded, in part: "The H-1B should be reserved only for those companies who say that cannot find somebody in that particular field."
This was the first time Obama had spoken at any length about the limits of the H-1B visa. In a subsequent phone interview, Wedel said she believes her opportunity to ask that question has left her with a responsibility.
"I have no idea why I was given this opportunity, but I was," said Wedel. Her responsibility is to inform people about the use of the visa, she explained.
"If I just sit on that information, then what kind of American does that make me?" said Wedel. "That doesn't make me a good American at all."
Wedel is now working with activists, in an ongoing effort to increase the H-1B visa's visibility.
Darin Wedel got a new job in 2012 and works today as a senior quality engineer in the medical industry. Obama offered, during the town hall, to review his resume and help him. But Wedel said the offer was a dodge to deflect the topic away from the H-1B issue. The White House offered very little help, she said.
Jennifer Wedel credits Donald Trump, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, for giving the H-1B issue visibility in the election. But Wedel is undecided about whom to support for president.
Wedel has reservations about Trump over broader issues and sees him as a little reckless with the things he says. And while she initially supported Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is also seeking the nomination, she's concerned about his corporate connections.
Wedel describes herself as a "conservative" and not a Republican, because she feels the party itself is too aligned with corporate interests.
Although Darin Wedel didn't train a foreign replacement and was laid off with other workers, Jennifer Wedel says Texas Instruments was lobbying for increasing visa use prior to the layoffs, and she sees a connection.
She credits the recent book about the H-1B visa, Sold Out -- by co-authors John Miano, an attorney and founder of the Programmers Build, and columnist Michelle Malkin -- with detailing Texas Instrument's lobbying efforts, as well as re-fueling her desire to become more active on this issue.
Jeh Johnson, the secretary of the U.S. Deptartment of Homeland Security, last July echoed Obama's 2012 statement acknowledging the H-1B visas' supposedly limited use. Appearing at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Johnson, in response to a question, told the committee that H-1B workers "are not supposed to replace Americans."
But since 2012, U.S. IT workers have become more vocal about displacements as offshore outsourcing reaches deeper into the U.S. economy.
One can't draw a straight line between Wedel and the increasing activism of IT workers, other than to suggest that Wedel's determined line of questioning of the president was an early signal of increasingly vocal discontent.
Last week, for instance, IT workers at EmblemHealth went so far as to stage a protest after their employer signed a contract with a major H-1B-using IT services firm. They held a noontime protest, with signs and chants, around EmblemHealth's midtown Manhattan office.
"I have huge American pride," said Wedel. "I feel Americans should have first priority" for jobs.
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