Issue Date: February 4, 2013 | Web Date: February 1, 2013
Immigration Reform Rising
Immigration reform leapt to the forefront of the political debate last week with two bipartisan efforts emerging from the Senate and a major policy speech from President Barack Obama that outlined his reform wish list. All of the plans ask for immigration increases for workers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The most science-focused plan is a bipartisan bill, the Immigration Innovation Act (S. 169), sponsored by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), that would overhaul the STEM visa system for both workers and students.
This bill would increase the cap on the popular H-1B visa, which allows U.S. companies to hire skilled workers from overseas. The number of H-1B visas would increase from 65,000 to 115,000, and could go as high as 300,000 if demand increases. It would also dissolve the additional cap—currently 20,000—on visas for immigrants with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.
Limits on permanent resident visas, often called green cards, would also rise. The current cap is 140,000, and the bill changes that in two ways. The first would allow the State Department to “recapture” green card slots not used in previous years. It also would lift the cap entirely for a variety of people, including advanced STEM degree holders as well as professors and researchers.
For students, the bill would allow them to apply for green cards or other visas while still in the U.S. rather than forcing them to return to their home country first.
Some observers are critical of immigration reform efforts that include increasing the number of STEM workers in the U.S. because there are currently a significant number of unemployed scientists. But many companies, especially those looking for computer scientists or engineers, say they cannot find enough workers.
The Hatch bill addresses this skills gap in two ways, says Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who released a study of the H-1B visa system last year.
The bill creates a market-based system that would change the visa cap depending on demand. It also provides funds to states to support science education and to retrain unemployed workers, possibly including scientists, to fill open positions.
Hatch’s bill will likely be incorporated into the second bipartisan move in the Senate, a larger effort for comprehensive immigration reform. That proposal, from eight senators, is generally supportive of science visa reform but does not go into details.
The White House endorsed the general principles of this Senate push, including STEM reform. But Obama went further in his speech, calling for a start-up visa for entrepreneurs, more visas for investors, and a new visa category for national research laboratory employees.
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