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11.11

STEM Education Bill Introduced in Congress

By Russ Harrison

On 5 October, Congressman Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) introduced a bill into Congress that will change the process international students use to become American citizens.  The bill will reduce the time between students earning their advanced degrees and when they can get a green card from between five and ten years to less than one.

The bill, H.R. 3146, applies to all international students who earn a Masters or Ph.D. from an American University in a STEM field and who have a job offer in the United States.  These students would be exempted from the employment-based immigrant (EB) visa cap.  EB visas are the most common way international students become citizens if they donít already have family within the United States. 

Because there are so few EB visas relative to demand, eligible students must currently wait up to ten years for one to become available.  During their wait, most students rely on H-1B or other temporary work visas to stay in the country.  IEEE-USA has long criticized these short-term visas as distorting the market for skilled engineers and harming all technology professionals in the process.  Short-term visas are also linked to offshore outsources and the loss of American jobs.  By making EB visas available sooner, H.R. 3146 would reduce the need for H-1B visas and minimize the damage done by them to the engineering profession.

By removing the EB visa cap for advanced degree students, Rep. Labradorís bill would reduce the wait for most students to the time it took to process their EB application, usually less than a year.  Since student visas (F Visas) currently allow students to stay and work in the United States for at least a year after graduating (under the Optional Practical Training program, or OPT),  students should be able to move directly from their F visa to a green card without interruption.

H.R. 3146 also relaxes limits within the EB program that restrict how many EB visas can be used each year by immigrants from the same country.  The bill creates a new $2,000 fee for the STEM EB Visas, and directs the funds raised by this fee towards programs to help American students pursue STEM degrees.  Finally, the bill streamlines the EB visa application process for some companies.  These reforms will make the EB visa process more efficient while strengthening American STEM education programs.

Green cards, unlike temporary visas, are tickets to American citizenship.  Once an immigrant has a green card, he/she is a permanent legal resident.  After five years, they can apply for citizenship.  Permanent legal residents can live anywhere they want, switch jobs just like an American and, most importantly, start their own businesses.  H-1B workers can do none of these things.

The text of H.R. 3146 is very similar to language found in another bill, the IDEA Act or H.R. 2161.  This bill was introduced by a long- time champion of high-skill immigration reform, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), earlier this year.  Lofgrenís bill was broader than Labradorís, including more controversial topics including low-skill immigration, the DREAM Act and family-based immigration.    But it also included provisions on high-skill immigration that are virtually identical to Labradorís bill.

This was not an accident.  In an attempt to forge a bipartisan consensus around the STEM exemption, Rep. Labrador consciously copied Rep. Lofgrenís language from the IDEA Act, leaving out everything that did not pertain to high-skill immigration. 

So far, it hasnít worked.  Rep. Labradorís bill has attracted five cosponsors:  Reps. Dold (R-Ill.), Griffin (R-Ark.), Ross (R-Fla.), Yoder (R-Kan.) and Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).  Of these, Sensenbrenner is a senior Republican legislator.  The other four are freshmen Republicans from, oddly, predominantly rural congressional districts.   IEEE-USA is working with several Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Lofgren, to win their support for H.R. 3146.

IEEE-USA members who wish to express an opinion on H.R. 3146 should contact their legislators through the IEEE-USA Legislative Action Center, www.ieeeusa.org/policy/lac.  Congress values the opinions of their constituents, especially on controversial  issues like this.

Questions about the bill or comments on IEEE-USA efforts to reform the high-skill immigration system can be directed to Russ Harrison at r.t.harrison@ieee.org.

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Russell T. Harrison is IEEE-USAís Senior Legislative Representative for Grassroots Affairs.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


Copyright © 2011 IEEE

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