APG - Atlanta Pacific Group

"Connecting American Business with Asia"

APG Blog

US Tackles Visa Reform for High-Skilled Workers

The U.S. Congress is considering several bills to encourage foreign students to remain in the United States after completing their college education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The proposed legislation – with names like the “STEM Visa Act” and the “BRAIN Act” – would provide temporary visas for foreign students who obtain employment in the United States, or “entrepreneur visas” for foreign nationals who start U.S. companies that hire local workers.

While STEM-related immigration reforms have had little success in previous legislative sessions, supporters are optimistic that prospects are more positive this time around. While details of the proposals vary, the bills have bipartisan support and plenty of common ground – particularly their focus on creating jobs for the sluggish economy. Observers feel the Senate and the House of Representatives should be able to combine the various bills into one legislative package that makes it easier for STEM students to remain in the U.S. after graduation.

The most comprehensive proposal is the STEM VISA Act, introduced in December 2011 by Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colorado) to “reform our outdated visa system to drive economic growth, inspire entrepreneurship and create jobs right here at home.” Bennett said the country faces a high-tech worker shortage. At the same time, “more and more of our STEM degrees go to foreign students who leave the United States to work. It only makes sense to keep international talent in our economy.” Bennett’s bill would create a new category of visas for students graduating with advanced degrees in STEM specialties. It would also fund initiatives to improve STEM education for America students; “make commonsense reforms” to current H1-B and L visas; and simplify the EB-5 program to encourage more foreign investment.

In a blog entry concerning his bill, Bennett added, “Every year an increasing number of foreign students graduate with advanced degrees from our universities and colleges. Many of these students want to stay in this country, work and contribute to our economy. But our broken immigration system forces them to return home.” 

Bennett’s proposal has drawn support from such groups as ImmigrationWorks USA, a non-profit organization working on immigration reform and employment issues. Tamar Jacoby, the group’s president, stated the STEM Visa Act would “reform the high-tech visa system, eliminating the obstacles that make it all but impossible for American companies to recruit and retain the workers the nation needs to remain a globally competitive knowledge economy.” Jacoby added the bill includes “several ingenious steps to expand the number of green cards available to highly skilled workers” and “multiple good ideas for streamlining the skilled-visa process.”

Bennett’s announcement of the bill cited support from several Colorado residents. Ralph Christie, CEO of Merrick & Company in Aurora, said US demand for engineers and scientists is strong, “and will continue to grow with the upcoming retirement of many baby boomers.” Noah Finkelstein of the University of Colorado-Boulder said Bennett’s bill “will address a long known problem for American higher education – why force our best and brightest students, those whom we have invested in so significantly, to leave just as they are best positioned to contribute to our society?” Waqas A. Qazi, a foreign aerospace engineering graduate student in Boulder, termed student visa and immigration regulations “very convoluted and laborious.” Qazi said many STEM students from his country who had been interested in studying and working in the U.S. are unable to attend graduate school here, “primarily because of the non-supportive visa and immigration laws. This legislation will offer a way forward for young engineers like myself to study in the U.S. and, one day, work here and contribute to the economy.”

According to Bennett, more than half of all PhDs awarded by U.S. universities in physics, economics, computer science, chemicals and similar technical fields are earned by international students. “The United States loses many of these individuals – some of the world’s brightest – due to inflexible and outdated immigration policies.”

While Bennett’s bill takes a more comprehensive approach, several other proposals introduced in 2011 address smaller parts of the STEM education issue. U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff (D-California) and Charles Bass (R-New Hampshire) introduced the INVEST Act to “make it easier for foreign students” graduating with U.S. degrees in STEM areas “to stay in the country if they start their businesses here and create American jobs.” The legislation would provide permanent residency for immigrant entrepreneurs with STEM degrees from U.S. universities. “To qualify, the immigrant entrepreneur must start a new business relevant to the area of study; create two new jobs or invest $200,000 after two years; and create five jobs or invest $500,000 in the business within five years,” they stated.

The congressmen cited a Kauffman Foundation study that shows 60,000 foreign students graduate with a STEM degree each year from U.S. universities. “Many of these talented individuals are being forced to return to their country of origin at the expiration of their student visas, where they then take their entrepreneurial ideas, build on them in those foreign countries, and boost those economies instead of ours,” they added. Schiff and Bass also cited another report that found, “As many as 262 additional native-born workers are employed for every 100 foreign-born workers putting advanced U.S. degrees to work in STEM fields.”

Both entrepreneurs and STEM students would benefit from the Startup Act, introduced by Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Mark Warner (D-Virginia). The Consumer Electronics Association, which supports the legislation, noted it would create STEM visas for up to 50,000 immigrants graduating from U.S. universities, and an entrepreneur’s visa for up to 75,000 immigrate entrepreneurs who start businesses that employ American workers.

The BRAIN (Bringing and Retaining Accomplished Innovators for the Nation) Act would also make it easier for foreign-born graduates to remain in the U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Arkansas), one of those drafting the proposal, said the bill would provide green card opportunities for legal immigrants who graduate with a PhD or master’s degree from a U.S. university and then obtain a job in the STEM fields. In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Griffin noted 63% of PhD degrees and 55% of master’s degrees in electrical engineering are received by foreign-born students. He added STEM-trained foreign students can help fill open jobs and create new businesses if they stay in the U.S. after graduation.

Whether Congress passes any of these measures into law remains to be seen. Previous STEM reforms have stalled in Congress. Bickering between Democrats and Republicans is expected to intensify as the presidential election looms this fall, which may mean continued gridlock on a number of initiatives. However, the various STEM visa proposals do have bipartisan support. Also, with high U.S. employment expected to be a major issue this year, STEM supporters are emphasizing how the proposed reforms would create more American jobs, enhance foreign investment and help restart the slow economy.  2012 could provide the ideal timing for the U.S. to finally modify its immigration policies to encourage foreign students to stay in the country after completing their STEM studies.    

Questons of comments? Please email Michael Fenton at mfenton@atlantapacificgroup.com