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Immigration Discussions Surrounding the Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math Workforce

Aline D. McNaull
Number 127 - October 8, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Discussions on Capitol Hill have recently turned to reforming the immigration system to grant visas to highly skilled workers in science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM).  Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX), and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) each introduced bills addressing the skills and talent deficit faced by US employers looking to hire STEM workers.  The bills would change immigration rules to allow for an increase in immigrants with STEM skills.

The STEM Jobs Act was introduced by Smith on September 18, 2012.  It would eliminate the Diversity Visa Program, which is a lottery program for receiving a US Permanent Resident (green) Card administered by the Department of State.  This program makes available 55,000 permanent resident visas annually to natives of countries which have low immigration rates to the US.  HR 6429 reallocates those 55,000 green cards to immigrants graduating from American universities with advanced STEM degrees. 

Under HR 6429, immigrants would be required to earn their degrees while living in the US, commit to staying in the US for at least 5 years, and need to be supported by a US employer.  The bill would require companies looking to hire to post their STEM openings on a state workforce agency website before seeking foreign immigrants.  The green cards would only be available to immigrants who graduated from academic institutions classified by the National Science Foundation or the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a “doctorate-granting university with a very high or high level of research activity.” 

The STEM Jobs Act was voted on by the House of Representatives on September 20th and defeated because it was considered under suspension of the rules requiring a two-thirds majority affirmative vote.  The vote was 257-158 and largely along party lines. 

The House debated HR 6429 for forty minutes.  In discussing his bill, Smith stated:

“When it comes to STEM fields--science, technology, engineering, and math--American universities set the standard. Our STEM graduates create the innovations and new businesses that fuel our economic growth and create jobs.  Many of the world's top students come to the U.S. to obtain advanced STEM degrees. But what happens to these foreign students after they graduate? Under the current system, we educate scientists and engineers only to send them back home where they often work for our competitors.  We could boost economic growth and spur job creation by enabling American employers to hire some of the best and brightest graduates of U.S. universities. These students become entrepreneurs, patent holders, and job creators.”

Lofgren spoke in opposition to the bill:

“For more than a decade, I've been working to increase high-skilled visas for foreign students with advanced STEM degrees from America's greatest research universities. I'm fortunate enough to see firsthand the new technologies, the new companies, the new jobs they create every day in my district in the Silicon Valley. For that reason, it pains me greatly that I cannot support this bill.  First, although this bill ostensibly seeks to increase STEM visas, it appears to have another, in my opinion, more sinister purpose--to actually reduce legal immigration levels. The bill does it in two ways.  On its face, the bill eliminates as many visas as it creates by killing the Diversity Visa Program which benefits immigrants from countries that have low rates of immigration to the United States. But the bill also discreetly ensures that many of the new visas will go unused by preventing unused visas after 2014 from flowing to other immigrants stuck in decades-long backlogs. This is not the way our immigration system works.  I believe the only reason the bill is written in this fashion is to satisfy anti-immigrant organizations that have long lobbied for reduced levels of immigration.  My colleagues on the other side of the aisle are fond of saying that while they are opposed to illegal immigration, they are very much in favor of legal immigration. But this bill shows the opposite.”

HR 6412, The Attracting the Best and Brightest Act of 2012, was introduced September 14, 2012 by Lofgren.  A similar bill, S 3553, the Benefits to Research and American Innovation through National Statutes Act, was introduced by Schumer on September 19, 2012.  These bills amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to make up to 55,000 visas available to qualified STEM immigrants in a pilot program, but they do not eliminate the Diversity Visa Program. 

Both the Lofgren and Schumer bills would require that immigrants possess a graduate degree at the master’s level or higher in a STEM field from a qualifying US research institution, have an employment offer from a US employer in a field related to their STEM degree, and have a wage paid by the employer that is similar to other individuals with similar STEM qualifications.  These bills would allow workers in STEM fields who are currently in the US under temporary visas to renew their visas without having to first return to their home country. 

These bills require employers to list STEM openings with a state workforce agency for at least 30 days and also require the Department of Homeland Security to post information online about foreign STEM employers, the number of aliens granted immigration status and their occupations.

Reports indicate that negotiations between the offices of Smith and Lofgren are ongoing.  In early negotiations between Schumer and Smith there were disagreements as to which academic institutions would be considered eligible.  Both parties are in agreement on the need to reform immigration rules to attract and retain STEM talent in the US.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics