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New STEM Visa Bills are Hopeful Signs for Skilled Immigration Reform

June 8, 2012

The past few weeks have seen welcome action on skilled immigration reform with the introduction of bills such as the Startup Act 2.0, the STAR Act and the SMART Jobs Act.  These bills call for increased access to green cards for foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.  The bipartisan support for these bills is a hopeful sign that skilled immigration reform may yet emerge from the cold storage it has been kept in by insistence for comprehensive immigration reform.

The Startup Act 2.0, introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), would create 50,000 new conditional STEM visas.  The STAR (Securing the Talent America Requires for the 21st Century) Act, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) would replace the diversity visa lottery with 55,000 STEM visas.  The SMART (Sustaining our Most Advanced Researchers and Technology) Jobs Act, introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Sen. Coons, would establish a nonimmigrant visa for STEM graduate students with eligibility for a green card upon employment in a STEM field.

These Senate bills join House bills from last year such as Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s (D-CA) IDEA Act and Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) STAPLE Act that would exempt STEM graduates from the annual green card cap.  This Congressional focus on green cards, rather than the traditional emphasis on temporary employment visas, represents a recognition of the need to secure the long-term economic contributions of skilled immigrants.

Reform of the employment-based green card system to reduce the backlogs that currently leave valued professional workers (and their employers) in procedural uncertainty for years is critical.  We must be able to take advantage of the skilled workers being trained in our own universities and utilize them for the benefit of our economy.  Limiting our access to this foreign-born talent and their innovative contributions in a quixotic dedication to dealing with all things immigration (no matter how disparate they may be) in one piece of legislation amounts to unilateral disarmament in the global competition for talent.  We are grateful that there are leaders in the Senate as well as the House that have the vision to recognize this, and we look forward to further action.

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