In the wake of immigration proposals late last month from both the White House and the Senate's "Gang of Eight," the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee last week held a hearing to discuss U.S. immigration policy and the potential for reform. Among the hearing's widely divergent topics was an issue important for science and scientists. The committee assembled a panel of expert witnesses—tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa of San Francisco, California; demographics researcher Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City; and Puneet Arora of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who is vice-president of the nonprofit organization Immigration Voice—to discuss so-called high-skill immigration, green cards, the H-1B visa program, and other foreign-worker visa programs affecting science and technical work.
Both the White House and Senate proposals contain provisions that would grant green cards—permanent-resident status—to foreign students who earn advanced degrees from U.S. educational institutions, arguing that the students’ skills would benefit the U.S. economy. Wadhwa and Arora echoed that argument: Increasing the number of highly skilled foreign immigrants with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, they each said, would boost America's economy by helping to meet U.S. employers' workforce needs and stimulating the creation of new companies, and hence new jobs for Americans. Teitelbaum urged a more cautious approach, and in interviews with Science Careers during a break in the proceedings, Wadhwa and Teitelbaum injected some nuance into the discussion, suggesting that legislation could be drafted that would admit more foreign STEM workers only in disciplines where a need for their skills has been established.
"You don’t want to admit all STEM workers. The tight workforce is not in all parts of STEM, but in some parts of STEM." —Michael Teitelbaum
Business as usual
During their testimony, Wadhwa and Arora each argued strongly for raising the percentage of foreign immigrants admitted to the United States on the basis of their STEM skills, at the expense of immigrants admitted via family reunification policies or the diversity lottery.
"Right now, we need more skilled workers," Wadhwa told the committee. "When you bring in skilled immigrants, you create jobs. So, bring the right people in and you will make the pie bigger for everyone." Later, in response to a question from Representative Suzan DelBene (D–WA), he said, "there would be literally tens of hundreds of companies that would start up overnight if we could give these would-be entrepreneurs visas."
Arora added, "We create opportunities for employment and invent valuable products for U.S. companies to sell in America and around the world. … We are job creators for our American colleagues." He quoted statistics from the American Enterprise Institute claiming that that each foreign worker who receives a U.S. STEM education creates on average 2.6 jobs, and that foreign-born professionals are 30% more likely to start a business in the United States than are native-born professionals.
A shortage of details
Aside from a short remark by Wadhwa that there is "debate whether there are shortages of engineers or a glut," neither he nor Arora addressed the question of whether there is a shortage of scientific and technical workers. In his prepared testimony, Teitelbaum wrote that "independent groups … and a growing number of respected university researchers … have concluded that the evidence does not support claims of generalized shortages of STEM workers in the US workforce." But he ran out of time before he got that far in his spoken testimony.
Addressing the House committee, Teitelbaum noted that the United States needs "much more effective means of assessing the needs of the workforce." He added, "You don’t want to admit all STEM workers. The tight workforce is not in all parts of STEM, but in some parts of STEM."
In interviews with Science Careers, Wadhwa and Teitelbaum pursued the idea further. A reformed immigration policy, Wadhwa told Science Careers, should take into account specific skills that the economy needs and be careful to not mistake a narrow area of genuine need as a generalized shortage of STEM workers. Teitelbaum pointed to a provision in the proposed STEM Jobs Act, which passed in the House last November but stalled in the Senate, that would reallocate 55,000 green cards currently assigned to a diversity program toward foreign STEM graduates of U.S. universities. However, it would exclude those with life sciences degrees because of "the often difficult career prospects for American students graduating with PhDs in biological and biomedical fields," according to a fact sheet released by the staff of Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX).
"That’s a very good, intelligent thing for them to have done," Teitelbaum said, noting that it’s the first instance he’s aware of in which high-skilled immigration policy is being tailored to the specific needs of the workforce. He worries, though, that not everyone in the discussion is amenable to a policy grounded in facts. "The problem is, industry tends to talk about it in terms of shortage only," he said.
Meanwhile, another bill winding its way through the Senate, the Immigration Innovation Act, makes no such provision for adjusting visas based on skills need. That act would bump the number of H-1B visas by as many as 300,000 and exempt "U.S. STEM advance degree holders," "Persons with extraordinary ability," and "Outstanding professors and researchers" from the employment-based green card cap.