FAQ: The new push to increase STEM work visas

Odds are improving that Congress will approve green cards for graduates with science, technology, engineering, and math degrees

There is a bipartisan push for legislation to automatically give green cards to students who earn a master's degree and above in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM degrees.

In the past two weeks, three green card STEM bills were introduced in the Senate. There are already bills in the House.

[ Stay ahead of the key tech business news with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. | Read Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog for what the key business trends mean to you. ]

All these bills agree that the U.S. should make it easy for a foreign student who earns an advanced STEM degree to remain in this country. But the bills disagree on key points.

For instance, some bills restrict green cards or permanent residency to graduates of research universities, while others allow STEM advance degree grads from any school. Some bills cap green cards at 55,000, which include dependents, while others have no cap. There have been proposals to limit automatic green cards to Ph.D. students only.

Supporters of permanent residency for STEM advance-degree grads, including President Barack Obama, argue that the U.S. needs these students to maintain world leadership in technology.

Critics warn that the green card program could hurt U.S. workers by increasing competition for jobs as well as fostering age discrimination.

Foreign students earned 57 percent of all engineering doctorates, 54 percent of all computer science degrees, and 51 percent of physics doctoral degrees in 2009, according to the National Science Foundation. In 2009, 168,900 foreign students were enrolled in science and engineering graduate programs.

Interest among lawmakers in the H-1B visa hasn't disappeared, and its use will be part of the green card debate.

Here's a Q&A guide to what's going on with the H-1B visa and green card in Congress:

What happened to the push to raise the H-1B cap?

Demand for H-1B visas fell with the recession and there's been little pressure to raise the 85,000 limit. But demand is picking up. The U.S. has received 58,000 visa petitions so far for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Has the H-1B visa fallen out favor with lawmakers?

Yes and no. In the Senate, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) controls immigration legislation as head of the Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee. The H-1B visa has created "multinational temp agencies" says Schumer. But he supports of H-1B visa use by U.S.-based tech companies.

In the U.S. House, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) controls immigration as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Smith has expressed interest in raising the H-1B cap without raising the H-1B cap. He could accomplish this by removing some non-tech occupations from the H-1B program, such as fashion models, pastry chefs, dancers, social workers and photographers. This will free up work visas for IT workers.

Will the H-1B cap be raised this year?

Not likely. Industry backers are more worried about new restrictions being imposed on the visa. There is concern that fallout from a federal probe into work visa use by Indian offshore giant Infosys could boost Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) longstanding effort to impose H-1B restrictions.

The Infosys probe stems from a lawsuit filed by an employee who claimed harassment after refusing to help a company acquire visas. This issue is a true wild card.

Who supports STEM green cards for advance degree graduates?

The support is bipartisan. Just this week, U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), along with Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced Startup Act 2.0 (a revised bill of something introduced last year.), that would create make green cards available for advance degree stem grads.

Earlier this month, Coons had co-sponsored a green card STEM bill with Sens. Lamar Alexandar (R-Tenn.). Also introducing a green card bill this month was John Cornyn (R-Texas).

In the U.S. House there have been a number of green card STEM bills, but they are less bipartisan about it.

U.S. Rep Zoe Lofgren introduced a Democrat-only Green card bill. U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) copied portions of it and then introduced a Republican version of Lofgren's bill. Lofgren has called the political environment " toxic."

What do the green card bills do?

They allow STEM graduates to avoid the H-1B visa and apply for permanent residency.

Do these bills increase the overall number of green cards?

The U.S. makes available 140,000 employment-based visas a year.

Lawmakers are considering methods for ensuring that green cards go directly to STEM grads without raising the overall visa count. One approach is to eliminate the "diversity lottery." The U.S. makes 55,000 green cards available to people who win this lottery.

There are lawmakers who oppose any increase in legal immigration, so this swap proposal is designed to win their support. Another method is to create an entirely new visa dedicated to STEM grads, which may increase employment based visas overall.

Who will be eligible for STEM green cards?

Technically, it is anyone who earns an advance degree in science, technology, engineering and math from a U.S. university.

But what exactly is a STEM degree?

If a student receives an undergrad degree in engineering and then earns an MBA, should that person be eligible for a green card under a STEM program? What defines a STEM degree has yet to be determined.

All the bills, however, require that a visa candidate first get a job in a STEM field before being eligible for a green card.

What is a STEM field?

Will an application and support job at an IT services firm qualify as a STEM job and automatically eligible for permanent residency? Congress has yet to define how this program will work.

What schools are eligible?

Determining what type of school is eligible may become one of the most controversial aspects of any STEM green card bill. Some lawmakers want to limit a STEM green card to students who graduate from Ph.D.-granting institutions that also receive research funding from the National Science Foundation.

Others bills have no restrictions on what colleges are eligible. Critics warn of for-profit colleges creating diploma mills for green card students. If that scenario unfolds, U.S. workers, particularly entry level graduates, may face increase competition for jobs. Older workers, already concerned about age discrimination in IT, will also raise concerns.

What is Congress expected to do?

More bills are likely. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is believed to be planning a STEM bill.

But the odds of a green card STEM bill winning approval this year, at least before the election, appear low.

Lawmakers haven't sorted out many of the basic questions underlying these bills, and supporters of comprehensive immigration reform have successfully opposed bills that break up immigration reform for fear of losing political support.

Senators also have enormous power to thwart initiatives. Sen. Grassley, who is among the most ardent critics of work visa programs, will want reform concessions from the tech industry.

Last November, the House approved "Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act" (H.R. 3012) by a bipartisan landslide of 389 votes. This bill, which eliminates per country green card caps, has the best chance of winning approval by Congress this year. But the legislation has been hung up in the Senate, thanks to a hold placed on it by Grassley.

Per country caps, which attempt to ensure that the U.S. immigration pool is diverse, have created multi-year wait times for people, especially from India, seeking permanent residency. This bill would create global wait list, shortening the wait for people in some countries and creating longer waits for others.

Who are the most important people on this issue?

In the Senate, it is Sen. Chuck Schumer and in the House, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith.

If Smith and Schumer can reach an agreement then anything is possible.

Smith is likely to oppose any expansion of green cards, which may make the diversity lottery swap attractive to him. But Schumer may be reluctant to make changes to the diversity visa lottery, which he has supported. Grassley's support will likely be needed as well.

Read more about gov't legislation/regulation in Computerworld's Gov't Legislation/Regulation Topic Center.

This story, "FAQ: The new push to increase STEM work visas" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.