Immigration Reform Would Enhance STEM Workforce

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Publication date: 
31 January 2013

Momentum is increasing on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to change the way in which visas would be provided to recent college graduates and professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. There have been three significant events this week related to the reform of immigration law, all of which are intended to strengthen the STEM workforce in the United States.

During a January 29 speech on immigration, President Obama stated “the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform.” Stressing that by doing so “we can strengthen our economy and strengthen our country’s future,” he said:

“There’s another economic reason why we need reform. It’s not just about the folks who come here illegally and have the effect they have on our economy. It’s also about the folks who try to come here legally but have a hard time doing so, and the effect that has on our economy.

“Right now, there are brilliant students from all over the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities. They’re earning degrees in the fields of the future, like engineering and computer science. But once they finish school, once they earn that diploma, there’s a good chance they’ll have to leave our country. Think about that.

“Intel was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Instagram was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Right now in one of those classrooms, there’s a student wrestling with how to turn their big idea - their Intel or Instagram - into a big business. We’re giving them all the skills they need to figure that out, but then we’re going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else? That’s not how you grow new industries in America. That’s how you give new industries to our competitors. That’s why we need comprehensive immigration reform.”

The White House released a Fact Sheet regarding the President’s proposal that includes the following:

“’Staple’ green cards to advanced STEM diplomas. The proposal encourages foreign graduate students educated in the United States to stay here and contribute to our economy by ‘stapling’ a green card to the diplomas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) PhD and Master’s Degree graduates from qualified U.S. universities who have found employment in the United States. It also requires employers to pay a fee that will support education and training to grow the next generation of American workers in STEM careers.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines a “green card” as follows: "A Green Card holder (permanent resident) is someone who has been granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. As proof of that status, a person is granted a permanent resident card, commonly called a ‘Green Card.’"

Also in the President’s proposal:

“Create a new visa category for employees of federal national security science and technology laboratories. The proposal creates a new visa category for a limited number of highly-skilled and specialized immigrants to work in federal science and technology laboratories on critical national security needs after being in the United States for two years and passing rigorous national security and criminal background checks.”

Obama spoke briefly of the need for reform in his January 21 Inaugural Address when he declared “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity . . . until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.” In an interview yesterday, Obama said his Administration has drafted legislation reflecting his immigration proposal. He is looking toward Congress for a detailed plan of its intentions by March. If none is forthcoming, the President will submit his draft legislation at that time.

Also on January 29, eight senators released a framework for comprehensive immigration reform. Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). A document issued by McCain’s office explains:

“The development of a rational legal immigration system is essential to ensuring America’s future economic prosperity. Our failure to act is perpetuating a broken system which sadly discourages the world’s best and brightest citizens from coming to the United States and remaining in our country to contribute to our economy. This failure makes a legal path to entry in the United States insurmountably difficult for well-meaning immigrants. This unarguably discourages innovation and economic growth. It has also created substantial visa backlogs which force families to live apart, which incentivizes illegal immigration.

“Our new immigration system must be more focused on recognizing the important characteristics which will help build the American economy and strengthen American families. Additionally, we must reduce backlogs in the family and employment visa categories so that future immigrants view our future legal immigration system as the exclusive means for entry into the United States.

“The United States must do a better job of attracting and keeping the world’s best and brightest. As such, our immigration proposal will award a green card to immigrants who have received a PhD or Master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from an American university. It makes no sense to educate the world’s future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to our economy.”

Also that day, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), joined by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Coons (D-DE) introduced S. 169, the Immigration Innovation – or I-Squared – Act of 2013. When introducing the bill, Hatch said:

“All four of us worked very closely together, and each one of us deserves total credit for this bill. Together, we have crafted one of the first bipartisan immigration bills in this Congress, one that is designed to address the shortage of high-skilled labor we face in this country. This shortage has reached a crisis level. For too long, our country has been unable to meet the ever-increasing demand for workers trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics - or STEM - fields. As a result, some of our Nation's top technology markets, such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, New York, and Salt Lake City, are in desperate need for qualified STEM workers.

“It is critical that we not only recognize this shortage of high-skilled workers but also understand why it exists. Increasingly, enrollment in U.S. universities in the STEM fields comes from foreign students, and despite our urgent need for workers in these fields, we continue to send these foreign students - potential high-skilled workers trained at American universities - back to their home countries after graduation.”

Senator Klobuchar briefly described the bill’s four major components:

“First of all, we reformed the H-1B visa system to meet the needs of a growing science, engineering, tech, and medical community and to help the workers who form the backbone of those businesses. Second, we make changes to student visas to encourage students who get degrees here to stay in this country so we don't just say: Hey, go back to India or China or some other country and start the next Google over there. We want them to start it here. Third, we improve the green card system.”

“Finally, and one of the most important aspects of this bill, we actually change the visa funding structure so that companies that bring in these high-tech and science and engineering immigrant workers will also be spending some money on funding all of the education efforts we need to do in this country for science, engineering, technology, and math, the STEM education that is going on in this country. Even by a conservative estimate, that would be $300 million a year and something like $3 billion in 10 years. That is real change, and it can change the system.”

This financing mechanism would be called the Promoting American Ingenuity Account and would be available to the Department of Education. Five percent of the funding could be used for “national research, development, demonstration, evaluation, and dissemination activities carried out directly or through grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements . . . .”

Thirteen senators have sponsored/cosponsored this bill.

No one expects the enactment of immigration law reform to be easy or without controversy. However, it appears that a bipartisan consensus has been reached in the Senate that changes are needed, particularly with respect to the encouragement of highly-educated STEM foreign graduates and workers. President Obama’s proposal regarding STEM students and workers is generally in concert with both the Senate framework and S. 169. The House approved a STEM immigration reform bill in the last session, although the vote was generally along party lines.

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