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Looking For A Visa Victory

Congress’ attention is finally focusing on proposals to ease immigration for STEM workers

by Andrea Widener
November 5, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 45


For two decades, high-tech businesses have been lobbying Congress for more visas and green cards for international immigrants to fill the voids in the ranks of qualified homegrown workers. In that time, very few long-term fixes have come forward.

Now science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) immigration reform may finally be rising to national prominence. Congress has taken up legislation on the topic, and on the presidential campaign trail, both former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama mentioned the topic during stump speeches.

“It is certainly more activity than we have seen in at least a decade around these issues,” says Bill Kamela, a senior director at Microsoft, which has been lobbying aggressively on STEM immigration for decades and released its own proposal for how to reform the system earlier this year.

Visas, specifically H-1B visas, allow highly skilled workers to temporarily fill positions in the U.S. A green card is a more permanent solution for immigrants. For decades, demand for the documents has been outstripping the number of both visas and green cards the U.S. makes available.

Credit: Shutterstock
Foreign citizens are sought out in many industries but especially for high-tech jobs that need highly skilled workers.
Photo of a person in a cleanroom
Credit: Shutterstock
Foreign citizens are sought out in many industries but especially for high-tech jobs that need highly skilled workers.

Almost everyone—including lawmakers on both sides of the aisle—agrees that the number and type of STEM workers from the U.S. just doesn’t meet the demand of companies. But how to fix that problem is still up for debate.

Companies looking for highly skilled workers in the U.S. argue that more visa and green card slots are needed so they can fill open positions and remain competitive internationally. This is a particular problem for many high-tech companies that can’t find the computer scientists or engineers they need in the domestic workforce. However, some lawmakers are concerned that the U.S. will not put in the effort to train U.S. workers if international substitutes are able to fill the open jobs.

As just one example, U.S. schools are training an increasing number of foreign nationals compared with U.S.-born scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. In 2010, about 40% of doctoral degrees in STEM areas awarded at U.S. institutions went to foreign citizens, up from 17% in 1960–70, according to a new report from the National Science Foundation.

“Many of these students say, ‘I want to stay in this country; I want to work in this country.’ But they can’t do so because they can’t get a visa,” says Eli Paster, legislative concerns chair at the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. The organization represents 500,000 graduate students at 70 schools nationwide, and 30–50% of each school’s group is from abroad. The organization has been lobbying Congress for more visas and green cards on behalf of its international members.

The current U.S. cap on H-1B visas for highly skilled workers is 65,000 visas per year for foreign nationals overall; these visas are given to workers whose potential employers submit an application and pay a fee. For advanced-degree holders from U.S. universities, an additional 20,000 visas are available each year. This group must apply through the same employer-based process.

Applications for H-1B visas open on April 1 each year. Since 1997, demand has exceeded supply every year except in 2004. In fact, the demand is so high that the available slots sometimes fill up in days. This year, for instance, the applications for 2013 visas were exhausted in 10 weeks. When that happens, employers must wait until the next year to hire workers using an H-1B visa.

Although computer companies have led much of the push for reform, the issue isn’t just in Silicon Valley. A recent report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, shows that the demand for H-1B visas is growing in unexpected places.

“What we notice is that it is a big issue across the country,” says Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at Brookings. He points to Columbus, Ind., and Davenport, Iowa, as two areas that have surprisingly high demand for their size.

Ruiz also says that two-thirds of all requests for H-1B workers are in the STEM fields. The highest demand is for mathematicians, where employers seek to fill 54.7 of every 1,000 positions in the market with a non-U.S. citizen, the Brookings report shows. That number is followed by life scientists and computer occupations, at 48.0 per 1,000 positions. The demand is lower for physical scientists, which would include chemists, at 20.0 per 1,000, but that is still far higher than demand for workers overall, which is at 2.6 per 1,000 positions.

This demand has led to calls for STEM immigration reform from those concerned about U.S. global competitiveness. That includes the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which has called for visa and green card reform in many studies, most recently in the report “Research Universities and the Future of America.”

“Our concern is that we are seriously out of touch with the rest of the world,” says James J. Duderstadt, former provost of the University of Michigan and a member of the report committee. “We are investing a good deal of money in the education of foreign students in this country, and once they receive the degree we make them leave.”

Other Western countries, including Canada and some in Europe, are more welcoming to skilled workers, especially those with doctoral degrees in STEM fields. The NAS report calls for Congress to make it easier for students to study in the U.S. and stay once they receive their degree.

Several bills proposed in Congress set out to do just that. Republicans and Democrats agree on the need to allow STEM master’s degree or doctoral graduates to stay in the country; they differ on how to go about doing it. Democrats support allowing more non-U.S. STEM workers to come into the country overall, while Republicans are proposing to repurpose existing visas to avoid increasing the total number of immigrants.

Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives had reportedly been close to making a deal to support a single bill that focused on green cards. They agreed on a number: 55,000 green cards available for STEM graduates of U.S. universities who have degrees in areas of national interest, according to observers. What they couldn’t agree on is whether or not to create new visas.

When they failed to reach a final agreement, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas) went ahead and brought a bill (H.R. 6429) up for a vote on the floor of the House just before the November election recess. His bill replaces the so-called diversity visa—which is a lottery for people from countries generally underrepresented in the U.S.—with more green cards for STEM workers. The bill failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass the House, and it now has been referred back to committee for consideration after the election. Observers say chances are high that the bill—or a compromise like it—will come up for a vote again before the end of the year.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced a bill (H.R. 6412) that does almost the same thing, except it creates new slots for immigrants rather than replacing an existing program. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he will introduce a bill similar to Lofgren’s in the Senate.

Whether STEM visa reform will go anywhere in Congress is yet to be seen because visas and green cards for highly skilled workers are mired in the larger problems facing the nation, including immigration and the high unemployment rate. Some in Congress favor comprehensive immigration reform, rather than focusing on individual pieces such as STEM workers. Others still aren’t convinced we really need to allow more science immigrants, given the overall high level of unemployment (see page 43).

But that’s where Microsoft holds itself up as an example. It has 6,200 current job openings, including 3,400 computer science positions that it can’t fill, which Kamela calls a “critical talent shortage.”

The majority of Microsoft’s profits are currently made abroad, but it still does 83% of its $9.6 billion worth of R&D in the U.S., he says. If the company can’t fill positions for computer scientists and engineers here, “these jobs will migrate out of the U.S. That is our greatest fear,” Kamela says.

In a white paper released by the company in September, Microsoft suggests drastically increasing the fees companies pay—from the current $2,000 each to $10,000 per visa and $15,000 per green card—in exchange for making 20,000 more STEM visas available each year and giving out 20,000 more green cards for STEM workers from previously unused slots.

The company suggests spending the resulting funds on increasing support of state science education programs, especially in the areas of computer science and engineering. This route could raise $500 million per year, Microsoft estimates, which the company suggests could be put toward STEM education efforts, alleviating the need for a high number of foreign technology workers in the future.

Microsoft doesn’t expect everyone to adopt all parts of its proposal. “We just think that we need to raise our dialogue and make these issues a national imperative,” Kamela says.

Whether the Microsoft proposal or the STEM visa plans that are already being considered in Congress are adopted, Kamela says he is more hopeful than he has been in decades that changes will be made soon. “There seems to be a lot of will and a lot of goodwill among the members of Congress to get legislation passed.”


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