WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney, a top candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has released an economic plan that would make it easier for foreign college graduates with advanced degrees in math, science and engineering to work in the U.S.
Romney's plan, unveiled this week, includes a proposal "to raise the ceiling" on visas for holders of advanced degrees in math, science "who have job offers in those fields from U.S. companies."
"These workers would not displace unemployed Americans. Rather, they would fill high-skill job openings for which there is currently an acute shortage of labor," wrote Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, in his plan.
The U.S. caps H-1B visas at 85,000 a year. Current regulations set aside 20,000 of those visas for advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities.
Romney's proposal doesn't stipulate that advanced degree holders be graduates from U.S. universities.
Romney's plan also calls for "stapling" green cards to the diplomas of technical degree graduates of U.S. universities, a plan that has been proposed by lawmakers on both sides in Congress without success.
"Even in this tough unemployment climate, as of this past spring nearly 1.25 million high-skill jobs remained unfilled," said Romney, in the economic plan released Tuesday. "A skills gap of that magnitude suppresses the productivity of our businesses and slows the overall economy. Highly educated immigrants would help fill that gap and get our economy rolling again."
Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, characterized as "dubious" Romney's claim that there is 1.25 million unfilled high-skilled positions.
"None of the official statistics support a claim that there's a shortage of these occupations," said Hira. "Unemployment rates for these occupations continue to be twice what they should be at full employment."
Hira, who recently testified on high skills immigration reform before a U.S. Senate committee, also took exception to Romney's claim that "a great majority" of the nearly 300,000 foreign students enrolled in advanced degree programs in the U.S. "will return home."
Hira cites a study last year Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, a group funded by the National Science Foundation, which found 67% of foreign students earning doctoral degrees from U.S. colleges in 2005 have remained in the country.
By not limiting H-1B visas to advanced degree holders of U.S. universities, Romney "increases the pool of candidates, especially at the Masters level, enormously," said Hira.
Conditioning an H-1B visa on a job offer from a U.S. company is not a labor market test, said Hira.
"We know that foreign workers, even advanced degree holders, will accept less pay and poorer working conditions, displacing even more American workers and undercutting their wages and working conditions," Hira said.
John Miano, the founder of the Programmers Guild, was dismissive of Romney's position.
"The American people expect that a president will look at all the facts and make the best decision on those facts," said Miano. Romney's statements "show that he is a pure politician who discards facts in favor of talking points fed to him by lobbyists who can buy access to him."
Among those who have taken a strong position on H-1B visas is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is also seeking the GOP nomination.
In 2007, Perry was one of 13 governors, led by former Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed a letter congressional leaders complaining of "severe shortages" in the tech industry and urging them to reform the work visa and green card programs.
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS 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 email@example.com.