FAQ: The new push in Congress to increase STEM visas

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

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What do the green card bills do?

They allow STEM graduates to avoid the H-1B visa and apply for permanent residency.

Do these bills increase the overall number of green cards?

The U.S. makes available 140,000 employment-based visas a year.

Lawmakers are considering methods for ensuring that green cards go directly to STEM grads without raising the overall visa count. One approach is to eliminate the "diversity lottery." The U.S. makes 55,000 green cards available to people who win this lottery.

There are lawmakers who oppose any increase in legal immigration, so this swap proposal is designed to win their support. Another method is to create an entirely new visa dedicated to STEM grads, which may increase employment based visas overall.

Who will be eligible for STEM green cards?

Technically, it is anyone who earns an advance degree in science, technology, engineering and math from a U.S. university.

But what exactly is a STEM degree?

If a student receives an undergrad degree in engineering and then earns an MBA, should that person be eligible for a green card under a STEM program? What defines a STEM degree has yet to be determined.

All the bills, however, require that a visa candidate first get a job in a STEM field before being eligible for a green card.

What is a STEM field?

Will an application and support job at an IT services firm qualify as a STEM job and automatically eligible for permanent residency? Congress has yet to define how this program will work.

What schools are eligible?

Determining what type of school is eligible may become one of the most controversial aspects of any STEM green card bill. Some lawmakers want to limit a STEM green card to students who graduate from Ph.D.-granting institutions that also receive research funding from the National Science Foundation.

Others bills have no restrictions on what colleges are eligible. Critics warn of for-profit colleges creating diploma mills for green card students. If that scenario unfolds, U.S. workers, particularly entry level graduates, may face increase competition for jobs. Older workers, already concerned about age discrimination in IT, will also raise concerns.

What is Congress expected to do?

More bills are likely. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is believed to be planning a STEM bill.

But the odds of a green card STEM bill winning approval this year, at least before the election, appear low.

Lawmakers haven't sorted out many of the basic questions underlying these bills, and supporters of comprehensive immigration reform have successfully opposed bills that break up immigration reform for fear of losing political support.

Senators also have enormous power to thwart initiatives. Sen. Grassley, who is among the most ardent critics of work visa programs, will want reform concessions from the tech industry.

Last November, the House approved "Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act" (H.R. 3012) by a bipartisan landslide of 389 votes. This bill, which eliminates per country green card caps, has the best chance of winning approval by Congress this year. But the legislation has been hung up in the Senate, thanks to a hold placed on it by Grassley.

Per country caps, which attempt to ensure that the U.S. immigration pool is diverse, have created multi-year wait times for people, especially from India, seeking permanent residency. This bill would create global wait list, shortening the wait for people in some countries and creating longer waits for others.

Who are the most important people on this issue?

In the Senate, it is Sen. Chuck Schumer and in the House, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith.

If Smith and Schumer can reach an agreement then anything is possible.

Smith is likely to oppose any expansion of green cards, which may make the diversity lottery swap attractive to him. But Schumer may be reluctant to make changes to the diversity visa lottery, which he has supported. Grassley's support will likely be needed as well.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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