Senate Dips Toe Into STEM Immigration Reform Stream

STEM-winder. John Cornyn wants immigrant pool to contain more high-tech workers.

Efforts to enable more foreign-born scientists trained at American universities to stay in the United States got a boost this week with the introduction of two bills in the U.S. Senate. And although the finish line is still distant, observers view the legislation as a sign that Congress is now thinking seriously about how to tweak current immigration laws to retain technical talent without triggering a political free-for-all on the more contentious issue of illegal immigration.

“Short of comprehensive immigration reform, which we’d love for Congress to tackle, we’re happy to see these bills,” says Barry Toiv of the Association of American Universities, a group of 61 prominent research universities that has joined with high-tech companies, professional societies, and other higher-education organizations in urging Congress to act. “These immigrants are job creators,” notes Kasey Pipes, a spokesman for one such coalition, called Compete America. “And while we’re not taking sides, both bills are asking the right question: How do we keep more skilled foreign students in the country after they graduate?”

Both bills—one from Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), and the second from the bipartisan duo of senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN)—argue that the U.S. economy is weakened by current barriers facing foreign students who receive graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and want to put down roots in the United States. Cornyn’s plan, called the STAR Act, would lower those barriers by allowing STEM graduates from a subset of institutions—those receiving at least $5 million in federal research grants—to lay claim to permanent residency without increasing the overall number of so-called green cards issued each year. It would do so by ending a program that awards 55,000 green cards to all manner of immigrants via a lottery and using those slots for STEM graduates.

The second bill, dubbed the SMART Jobs Act, would create a new visa category for students pursuing graduate STEM degrees and provide them with a direct route to a green card once they found a job. They would not count against the current immigration ceiling, meaning a likely hike in the overall number of immigrants allowed to stay in the country.

Both bills would, in effect, sidestep the current system by which foreign graduates temporarily extend their right to remain in the country by having employers certify that they are uniquely qualified for the job. That certification earns them an H-1B visa. But holders of H-1Bs often fail to obtain permanent residency because of caps on the number of green cards that can be awarded to immigrants from particular countries. The official wait, in some cases, can be as long as 70 years.

Both pieces of legislation would also give foreign graduate students a chance to declare their true intentions before arriving in the United States. That seemingly innocuous change would eliminate the hypocrisy embedded in the current rules: In order to be admitted to a U.S. university, foreign students must now swear to return home after graduation, even if the vast majority is desperate to remain.

Cornyn decried the effects of such Alice-in-Wonderland rules in a press release touting his bill, which was introduced on Tuesday. “American universities are educating the world’s leading STEM graduate students—only to export this talent to our competitors overseas,” Cornyn declares. “The STAR Act ends this brain drain.”

The next day, Coons explained to reporters why he and Alexander introduced their bill. “Fifty years ago, if you came here from another country and got a doctorate … your chances of applying your skills and strengths to create jobs in your home country were dramatically less than here. But times have changed … and it’s time for us to modernize.”

Last year, representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Raúl Labrador (R-ID) introduced bills in the U.S. House of Representatives that, using very similar language, would give foreign STEM graduates a clear path to permanent residency as well as strengthening STEM education programs for U.S. citizens. But neither of the bills, H,R.2161 or H.R.3146, has made it out of committee. Supporters of STEM immigration reform think that a bill being readied by Representative Tim Griffin (R-AR) may stand a better chance. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House judiciary committee, is believed to be the pivotal player in any decision to move ahead with a reform bill before the current Congress adjourns in December. And he’s holding his cards close to the vest.

That uncertainty doesn’t bother Toiv and other reform advocates, however. “We haven’t seen any evidence that they are getting ready to move [a bill],” Toiv admits. “But what’s important right now is less the details than that Congress may finally be trying to address the issue.”