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

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Publication date: 
8 October 2012

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.