House readies green card bill for tech

Unlike others, this latest effort may have a chance

WASHINGTON -- There's a big push to get Congress to allow people who hole advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math to automatically get green cards.

The clearest evidence is from Rep. Tim Griffin, (R-Ark.), who says he is working on his own green card bill with the help of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who heads the House Judiciary Committee. Smith is the gatekeeper of immigration issues in the House.

Smith is sending out immigration reform bills piecemeal. He previously worked with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to get legislation approved that would eliminate the per-country caps on the green card.

The Chaffetz bill, once it cleared the Judiciary Committee, won overwhelming House approval but stalled in the Senate when Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put a hold on it.

The Chaffetz bill doesn't change the 140,000 green-card cap. Instead, it turns the employment-based green card into a global first-come, first-served system. The Griffin bill would change the overall cap.

Griffin hasn't released his bill yet, but what it would do is very similar in concept to what Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), have proposed: make permanent residency available to people who hold advanced degrees, including those with master's degrees. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill earlier this year that would limit green cards to people who hold Ph.D.s.

"So far, I have seen this as a bipartisan effort," said Griffin, who spoke Thursday at an American Enterprise Institute forum. He plans to call his bill the Brain Act, or Bringing and Retaining Accomplished Innovators for Our Nation. He also said they had considered calling it the Nerds Act, for New Employees for Research and Development in STEM. (STEM is shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math.)

Griffin says his bill will make green cards available to people who are pursuing both master's and Ph.D. degrees, but he didn't sound completely certain that master's degrees would remain in his legislation. "It does include master's at this point; hopefully it stays that way," he said.

Griffin's bill could also include a cap that limits the number of green cards available to degree-holders.

The IEEE-USA recently sent a letter to Smith urging him to create at least 55,000 employment-based green card visas for STEM graduates, a number it said "is sufficient to meet current demand for highly educated STEM workers, plus their dependents."

That IEEE number is based on what proponents cite from the American Society for Engineering Education, which reports that 47,000 to 63,000 foreign students get master's or Ph.D. degrees from U.S. universities every year.

Griffin and other proponents of greens cards for STEM grads argue that, without the option of obtaining a green card, many of these students will return to their home countries and use their U.S. educations to compete against American companies.

Smith recently received a letter signed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the IEEE-USA, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Semiconductor Industry Association and others urging him to take action on a bill.

The green cards should go to people who have job offers, the groups argued. "Employers who have offered positions to qualifying individuals, or already lawfully employ them, based on the quality of the individuals' skill set and STEM graduate training in the United States, should be the filter to identify which STEM graduates are sponsored for green cards," the groups wrote in their letter to Smith.

But there are numerous concerns as well.

Opponents of the idea worry that an easy path to green card via a master's degree could lead to an expansion of low-quality college programs, and result in students who are hired at IT shops that do contract and outsourcing work, undercutting U.S. workers. Others argue that the U.S. isn't facing a shortage of skilled workers.

Some proposals have sought to limit green cards to graduates of research universities or schools that now qualify for National Science Foundation research grants.

Whatever emerges from Smith's committee still has to face the Senate, where H-1B reformers such as Grassley are apparently working to foil Smith's efforts.

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

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