GOP advances bill to help China, India tech grads

But is the 'Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act' really fair?

WASHINGTON - A key House committee this week approved a Republican-sponsored high-skill immigration bill intended to help advanced degree holders in India and China get green cards to work in the U.S.

The bill, advanced by the House Judiciary Committee, eliminates per-country limits without changing the overall cap. The limits have created long wait times for applicants in countries where the demand for green cards is high. The bill needs action by the full House and Senate before it can reach President Obama's desk.

The federal government sets a cap of 140,000 employment-based green cards a year, with no more than 7% from any single country. Because demand is highest for advanced degree holders from India and China, the per-country cap has meant delays for residents of those two nations of at least four years for a green card. By contrast, people from most other countries with advanced degrees have little wait.

The per-country caps will be eliminated if the bill, the "Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act" (H.R. 3012), becomes law. But what may be called fair by some, isn't seen as such by others.

In a letter for committee leaders, the Korean-American Scientists and Engineers Association said the law would create a two-year wait for Koreans who get science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degrees from universities in the U.S. It urged the committee "not to force engineers from Korea to wait [an] additional two years in their immigration process to get green cards."

The legislation was introduced by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and was backed by the committee chair, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

"This legislation makes sense," Smith said in a statement Thursday. "Why should American employers who seek green cards for skilled foreign workers have to wait longer just because the workers are from India or China?"

Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, said that by relaxing the per-country limits, Congress is placing a priority on EB-2, or advanced degree-holder, green card applicants. "This especially helps those workers from India and China waiting in line," he said.

"This tilts the employment-based green card preferences towards higher-skilled workers, which is a good thing," said Hira of H.R. 3012. "There is of course, much more work that needs to be done. Hopefully, Congress will next turn to helping American high-tech workers by closing the obvious and enormous loopholes in the H-1B, L-1, B-1, and J-1 guest worker programs."

The IEEE-USA supports lifting per-country caps, but wants lawmakers to take a broader approach by giving green cards to students who graduate from U.S. universities with so-called STEM degrees.

"The country-cap only approach will have no net impact on the American economy at all," said the IEEE-USA, in a letter from its president, Ronald Jensen. "No American jobs or companies will be created. And the enormous economic potential found in a well-crafted reform bill will have been squandered."

There are two bills, one from U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and another, narrower, but similar bill from U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), that would grant green cards to U.S. STEM grads with job offers.

Proponents of that approach characterize it as a job-creation strategy, because it helps retains U.S.-trained foreign workers. Opponents warn that green cards in exchange for jobs could have unintended consequences and lead to diploma mills.

Backers estimate that green cards for STEM grads will lead to about 50,000 new green cards a year, about half for the STEM graduate and the remainder for family members. Opponents say that estimate may under count the actual impact.

On the elimination of the per-country cap, John Miano, the founder of the Programmers Guild, said the cap, established in 1965, set up a diversity system "to make immigration look like the world." By eliminating the cap, "we have an act that sets up a system to make immigration look like India and China."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing 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 e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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