House Prepares to Move STEM Immigration Reform

Congress could be inching closer to allowing more high-skilled foreign workers to remain in the country. The change in U.S. immigration law would be a huge victory for a popular idea that has been battered by the sharp political in-fighting over the broader question of illegal immigration.

Heartened by the tenor of a House of Representatives' hearing last week on the topic, advocates see growing support in Congress for giving permanent residency status—commonly known as a green card—to foreign-born students who have earned graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The students would need to have attended reputable U.S. institutions and have a job offer that pays the prevailing wage. High-tech entrepreneurs who start companies that hire U.S. workers and become successful would also be eligible for green cards. The changes are aimed at keeping talented STEM professionals from going back to their home countries and competing against U.S. firms.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), who is chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has been the main stumbling block to any major reform affecting STEM professionals. Despite White House support for the idea, reform bills introduced this year by both Democrats and Republicans have languished because of his opposition. Smith appears most concerned about the unintended consequences of expanding the pool of legal immigrants. He has questioned whether the benefits should extend to those with masters' degrees as well as doctoral recipients, and the definition of which fields should be eligible for such favored treatment. He also worries about opening the door to fly-by-night institutions enrolling students who are more interested in obtaining a green card than pursuing a career as a scientist or engineer.

But Smith is said to be close to resolving his concerns. At the 5 October hearing he asked the four witnesses for yes or no answers to five pointed questions relating to these issues. Despite their different perspectives on the value of more STEM-trained immigrants, all favored some version of the reforms being debated. And those in attendance are guessing that the answers Smith received will eventually be folded into legislation.

Smith won't disclose his plans. But a committee staff member says that he "is considering a few proposals. Last week's hearing by the Judiciary Committee's immigration panel, the staffer adds, "shows that [the topic] is on his radar." Advocates expect him to either introduce his own bill or throw his considerable weight behind one of several pieces of legislation with similar goals.

"He has expressed support for a STEM bill, and told us that it could happen this year," says Russell Harrison, a lobbyist for IEEE-USA, the public policy arm of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "If he introduces his own bill, the odds of its passage would be very good."

One of those proposals, expected to be introduced as soon as today, comes from Representative Raúl Labrador (R-ID). A former immigration attorney who grew up in Puerto Rico, Labrador is not a member of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the topic. But Labrador has been working with another freshman legislator, Representative Tim Griffin (R-AR), who chaired last week's hearing and is preparing his own bill.

Labrador's bill contains several of the safeguards that Smith believes are essential, including asking the National Science Foundation to certify the research quality of the eligible institution. It would also give NSF control of 87% of the money generated by a $2000-per-person fee collected from companies seeking to hire such graduates. The fees would support college scholarships for U.S. students in STEM fields, improvements in elementary and secondary school STEM education, and research on enhancing undergraduate STEM education at minority-serving institutions.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of Labrador's bill is its extensive overlap with another bill, HR 2161, that was introduced in June by Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). Lofgren's bill is given no chance of passage because she is a member of the minority party in the House. But that doesn't mean its contents aren't important. As Lofgren, a long-time champion of STEM immigration reform, noted during last week's hearing, "as I heard Mr. Smith ask his questions, I said to myself: 'Yes, that is already in my bill.' "

However, lobbyists don't expect Labrador's bill to be the one that emerges from the pack. And it's an open question whether Smith will seek Democratic co-sponsors if and when he does endorse a bill.

(According to those who follow the STEM immigration debate closely, Lofgren wanted to co-sponsor a much narrower bill introduced last month by Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) that would lift the current ceiling limiting the number of immigrants according to their country of origin. The Chaffetz bill, HR 3012, would benefit information technology companies trying to retain Indian software engineers who now face a 70-year wait for a green card. But Smith nixed the offer as payback for Lofgren's opposition to Smith's attempt to toughen E-Verify, a system for employers to weed out illegal aliens.)

"[House Republicans] may need to create their own bill, with only Republican sponsors," says Amy Scott of the Association of American Universities, a member of the pro-reform COMPETE America coalition. "But I would hope that [Lofgren] would help move the bill forward, even if she's not a sponsor."