Should high-skilled immigrants get special treatment?

Some in Congress want to give special visas to foreign-born graduates of American universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. But critics say it could come at the expense of diversity in legal immigration.

By , Staff writer

Tucked into Congress’s scramble to get back on the campaign trail is an interesting debate about America’s immigration priorities. It’s in the form of a GOP-sponsored bill that would offer high-skilled advanced graduates of American universities a special visa option at the expense of the green card “lottery” system that aims to diversify the immigrant population to the United States.

House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R) of Texas unveiled a bill Friday that would grant 55,000 visas a year to foreign-born graduates of American universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“These students have the ability to start a company that creates jobs or come up with an invention that could jump-start a whole new industry,” said Representative Smith, a frequent critic of the administration’s immigration policy, in a statement. “In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the US and then send them back home to work for our competitors.”

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The bill prioritizes PhD recipients who will work in the US for five years and who come from 217 universities that are qualified as top research institutions by the Carnegie Foundation. The bill attempts to protect US workers from foreign competition by excluding biological and biomedical advanced graduates from the program and requiring companies that want to hire applicants for the special visa to post the job on the site of state workforce agencies.

The provocative question is not whether the US should have more STEM immigrants. From 165 university presidents who sent a letter to President Obama and congressional leaders arguing for STEM visas to bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for similar STEM-boosting legislation in the past to polls showing 3 in 4 Americans (including 6 in 10 conservatives) support such measures, support for more STEM immigration is widespread.

The thorny issue is that public support for more STEM visas has not been previously linked to reducing another form of immigration; can Congress and the president stomach more STEM visas if they come at the expense of the diversity green card program?

“I would like to improve the STEM visa program without doing damage to other parts of our legal immigration system,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois in a statement. “The president has made this a priority, and I am prepared to support a clean STEM increase because it will help our economy and create jobs. Republicans are only willing to increase legal immigration for immigrants they want by eliminating legal immigration for immigrants they don't want.”

The value of the visa program Smith’s bill would eliminate is a broadening and deepening of the foreign-born that America makes its own. The diversity program, although only about 5 percent of the US’s typical total annual immigration, specifically targets nations that have had low rates of immigration to the US in the previous five years – Bangladesh and Poland, for example.

“The beauty of our immigration system is that it allows for diverse streams of people, family unification, low wage, high wage, refugee,” says Muzzafar Chisti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University law school. “The diversity visas had provided another stream of balancing the ethnic and racial composition of our immigration stream and that itself is a value.”

Why might diversity visas be on the chopping block? Mr. Chisti says there is no strong, single group advocating for their continuance – while many groups are loaded up on the side of STEM grads.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, the ranking member of the House Immigration Policy and Enforcement subcommittee, proposed competing legislation Friday that offers the same number of STEM visas without cutting back on other visa programs. Representative Lofgren’s bill would sunset the new visas after two years to force Congress to reexamine how effective the program had been.

Smith’s bill, however, is the only one with a slot on the House floor. It will be offered under special voting procedures this coming Wednesday that require a two-thirds majority of the House to pass. The bill faces an uncertain path in the Senate, although members in that chamber have supported similar legislation in the past.

"There should be bipartisan support for efforts to retain the world's best and brightest after they've received STEM training at American universities. It makes no sense that we require these graduates to return home so they can compete against us,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, an advocate for previous measures like the JOBS Act 2.0 that created a special visa for STEM graduates, in a statement.

"I am hopeful this commonsense proposal – which could do so much to promote US innovation and competitiveness – receives quick action by Congress,” he said.

However, the Senate is likely to join the House in leaving Washington after next week. Any negotiations over differences in bills passed between the two houses, then, would have to be resolved either in two short days as lawmakers skedaddle from Washington or in a lame-duck session after the election.

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