WASHINGTON -- Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, may be getting ready to support legislation to grant green cards to holders of advanced degrees in the so-called STEM fields.
Smith, the gatekeeper on immigration bills in the House, is being urged to take action by a broad coalition of groups, including some of the largest technology companies -- Apple, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Microsoft, as well as the IEEE-USA.
Smith is signaling his willingness to bring a bill forward, and has been working on the issue for a while. The release of a letter late last week from tech companies may have served as a catalyst for movement on green card legislation.
In a statement late last week, Smith said the country "cannot afford to train these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors."
There have been repeated attempts over the years to make it easier for foreign students to remain here after earning advanced degrees in STEM fields -- as the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math are known -- at U.S. universities. Typically, these students seek a temporary H-1B work visa before applying for permanent residency.
Bills to grant permanent residency or employment-based green cards to foreign graduates have stalled because of the deadlock over comprehensive immigration reform.
Smith has not released details of his proposal, but some aspects of it have been confirmed by sources.
The legislation may restrict the green cards to people who earned advanced degrees while physically attending U.S. universities.
Its authors apparently want to eliminate the possibility that a student can earn a degree online in China, India or elsewhere and then potentially qualify for permanent residency without ever coming to the U.S. to study.
The legislation will include a cap of 55,000 green cards annually. The U.S. now awards that number of green cards through a "diversity lottery," which makes 55,000 of the permanent residency cards available on a random basis worldwide to lottery winners. That program will end, and those visas will be reallocated to the STEM graduates.
There will be restrictions on the types of universities that qualify. The intent is to prevent so-called diploma mills from taking advantage of the program. Some bills have proposed restricting this visa program to universities that already qualify for federal research funding.
A long list of companies and industry groups sent a letter to U.S. House members last week urging bipartisan action on an immigration bill for STEM degree holders. "These are highly educated professionals who will create jobs wherever they settle, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere," they wrote.
Smith is probably counting on help from Democrats. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, introduced a STEM visa bill earlier this year.
Before this week, the tech-related immigration bill that was seen as having the best odds for passage was a bill to eliminate the per-country cap on green cards. The House voted 389-to-15 late last year to eliminate the per-country cap.
The U.S. makes 140,000 employment-based green cards available each year, but it limits each country to 7% of the total. Visa applicants in China and India face a multiyear wait because of demand. Eliminating the cap would have created one global, first-come, first-serve line.
But the bill was stuck in the Senate after Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) put a hold on it. He wanted restrictions on H-1B use attached to it.
Elimination of per-country caps was widely seen as having a chance at passage this year. But the proposal drew opposition from the private sector because of Grassley's changes, and its passage is now in doubt.
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 email address is email@example.com.