GOP's tech visa bill copies Democrat's bill

Republicans and Democrats have each submitted bills to give green cards to foreign 'STEM' grads, but the Democratic bill seeks more

A Republican lawmaker has submitted legislation that would make foreign students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) at U.S. universities automatically eligible for a green card or permanent residency if they have a job offer.

If this bill by U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) sounds familiar, it should. In June, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), introduced legislation seeking the exact same thing.

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Indeed, Labrador's bill appears to be a cut-and-paste version of what Lofgren is seeking. Lofgren's bill is HR 2161, and Labrador's is HR 3146.

"It's kind of a novelty to take something word for word out of another bill, but it is probably not the first time it has happen in Congress," said Lofgren, in an interview. She called it disconcerting and said she has spoken to Labrador about it.

The difference is in the scope of the bills. Labrador's bill limits itself to green cards for advanced degree graduates. What Lofgren proposed was more comprehensive. Her bill sought, among other things, green cards for foreign entrepreneurs who invest in the U.S., as well as H-1B and L-1 visa reforms, including eliminating the lowest level of the prevailing wage scale.

Lofgren doubts that Labrador's bill "can actually make it all the way to the finish line," and said there were provisions in her bill that are intended to help broaden support in both chambers.

Lofgren is on the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the key person in deciding what immigration bills move ahead or not.

"I haven't gotten a sense from Chairman Smith that he is eager to do anything that meaningful," said Lofgren, of immigration reform, although she said there may be some interest in moving small things.

Labrador, in a statement Friday announcing the bill, said his legislation addresses "the long-term problem of too few American students entering into math and science-based programs."

"When I practiced immigration law I regularly worked with high-tech companies in Idaho who had openings for workers with advanced degrees but, due to the small number of U.S. graduates in these fields, could not find the employees they needed," Labrador said.

Asked about the copying of Lofgren's bill, Phil Hardy, a Labrador spokesman, said that when they talked with industry groups "they all mentioned that the Lofgren bill was a great starting point," he said, in an email.

Hardy said that "as is common, our office asked legislative counsel to help draft our bill, keeping the good parts and taking out the parts that Mr. Labrador felt weren't necessary to create a vibrant STEM reform plan." STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields.

Hardy said because everyone is trying to accomplish the same thing "the language is going to be alike." He also hoped it would encourage bipartisan cooperation.

The idea of granting green cards to STEM grads has been around for some time. U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, (R-Ariz.), for instance, reintroduced what he called the "Staple Act," earlier this year.

Industry supporters, including the IEEE-USA, which announced support for Labrador's bill, cite data that finds, for instance, that more than 55% of the master's and 63% of Ph.D graduates from U.S. universities in electrical and electronics engineering are foreign nationals.

But there is also debate and controversy about the effects of such a program regardless of who proposes it.

Smith raised concerns, at a hearing earlier this month on the STEM workforce, about an automatic green card policy for advance degree grads. Among his concerns is that "a visa 'pot of gold' could create an incentive for schools to aim solely to attract tuition-paying foreign students with the lure of a green card."

At the same hearing, Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute of International Migration, said the number of U.S. science and engineering graduates is far larger than the science and engineering workforce.

Lowell said the U.S. projects 190,000 annual science and engineering job openings due to growth and replacement needs between 2008 and 2018. Annually, between 1995 and 2007, there was an increasing number of domestic science and engineering graduates, averaging 408,000 with bachelor's degrees; 78,000 with master's degrees ; and 21,000 doctoral graduates for a total of 507,000.

Lowell told the committee that there is "little evidence that our educational pipeline produces too few domestic students able and willing to pursue a science and engineering career." A tighter labor market also induces wage gains, he said.

Also testifying was Darla Whitaker, senior vice president of worldwide human resources at Texas Instruments who testified on behalf of the Semiconductor Industry Association. She told lawmakers that companies want to recruit from the entire talent pool of graduates.

"We do not choose where those engineers were born or what their citizenship is," said Whitaker. "We choose the best, the brightest and the most creative engineering graduates," she said.

Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the Labrador bill "is a sledgehammer approach that will surely create many negative unintended consequences."

"Most foreign STEM advanced degree graduates can already stay through an H-1B and be sponsored permanently through an EB-1 or EB-2 visa," said Hira, referring to employment-based green cards.

An EB-1 worker is "an outstanding professor or researcher, or are a multinational executive or manager," according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. An EB-2 visa is available to someone with an "advanced degree or its equivalent," among other criteria.

There are long backlogs for EB-2s from two important source countries, India and China, Hira said. If that is the problem Labrador wants to solve, then there are cleaner ways to do so, such as adjusting the size of the allowed EB-2 visas, he said.

"Labrador's bill invites creative business models from entrepreneurial universities to sell green cards," said Hira. "The bill hasn't been vetted carefully."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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This story, "GOP's tech visa bill copies Democrat's bill" was originally published by Computerworld.

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