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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 / September 16, 2012



Washington

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.

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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.”

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.”

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