FAQ: The new push in Congress to increase STEM visas

Odds are improving in Congress on green cards for science, technology, engineering and math

WASHINGTON -- There is a bipartisan push for legislation to automatically give green cards to foreign students who earn a master's degree and above in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM degrees.

In the past two weeks, three green card STEM bills were introduced in the Senate. There are already bills in the House.

All these bills say that the U.S. should make it easy for a foreign student who earns an advanced STEM degree to remain in this country. But the bills disagree on key points.

For instance, some bills restrict green cards or permanent residency to graduates of research universities, while others allow STEM advance degree grads from any school. Some bills cap green cards at 55,000, which include dependents, while others have no cap. There have been proposals to limit automatic green cards to Ph.D. students only.

Supporters of permanent residency for STEM advance-degree grads, including President Barack Obama, argue that the U.S. needs these students to maintain world leadership in technology.

Critics warn that the green card program could hurt U.S. workers by increasing competition for jobs as well as fostering age discrimination.

Foreign students earned 57% of all engineering doctorates, 54% of all computer science degrees, and 51% of physics doctoral degrees in 2009, according to the National Science Foundation. In 2009, 168,900 foreign students were enrolled in science and engineering graduate programs.

Interest among lawmakers in the H-1B visa hasn't disappeared, and its use will be part of the green card debate.

Here's a Q&A guide to what's going on with the H-1B visa and green card in Congress:

What happened to the push to raise the H-1B cap?

Demand for H-1B visas fell with the recession and there's been little pressure to raise the 85,000 limit. But demand is picking up. The U.S. has received 58,000 visa petitions so far for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Has the H-1B visa fallen out favor with lawmakers?

Yes and no. In the Senate, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) controls immigration legislation as head of the Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee. The H-1B visa has created "multinational temp agencies" says Schumer. But he supports of H-1B visa use by U.S.-based tech companies.

In the U.S. House, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) controls immigration as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Smith has expressed interest in raising the H-1B cap without raising the H-1B cap. He could accomplish this by removing some non-tech occupations from the H-1B program, such as fashion models, pastry chefs, dancers, social workers and photographers. This will free up work visas for IT workers.

Will the H-1B cap be raised this year?

Not likely. Industry backers are more worried about new restrictions being imposed on the visa. There is concern that fallout from a federal probe into work visa use by Indian offshore giant Infosys could boost Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) longstanding effort to impose H-1B restrictions.

The Infosys probe stems from a lawsuit filed by an employee who claimed harassment after refusing to help a company acquire visas. This issue is a true wild card.

Who supports STEM green cards for advance degree graduates?

The support is bipartisan. Just this week, U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), along with Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced Startup Act 2.0 (a revised bill of something introduced last year.), that would create make green cards available for advance degree stem grads.

Earlier this month, Coons had co-sponsored a green card STEM bill with Sens. Lamar Alexandar (R-Tenn.). Also introducing a green card bill this month was John Cornyn (R-Texas).

In the U.S. House there have been a number of green card STEM bills, but they are less bipartisan about it.

U.S. Rep Zoe Lofgren introduced a Democrat-only Green card bill. U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) copied portions of it and then introduced a Republican version of Lofgren's bill. Lofgren has called the political environment "toxic."

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