Senate Dems aim to staple Green Cards to tech diplomas

Immigration framework released by Schumer incorporates ideas from earlier Grassley-Durbin proposal

As Arizona's new immigration law captures the attention of much of Congress, a group of Senate Democrats has proposed a framework for possible federal immigration reform that includes major changes to the high-skilled worker immigration process.

The most sweeping change in the immigration legislation framework may be a provision that would offer almost automatic permanent residency to any foreign student earning an advanced degree -- masters and above -- in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics at a U.S. college or university. The graduate must have a job offer to be eligible.

The framework was released Thursday by its chief sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

This idea of "stapling" a Green Card on the diplomas of advanced degree graduates has been kicked around by lawmakers for years, but any action on it and other tech-focused immigration efforts have been held up by the lack of agreement on comprehensive immigration reform.

Schumer has long advocated increasing the number of high-skilled immigrants working in the U.S..

A similar proposal to give Green Cards to scientific and technical graduates was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). That proposal, called the Stopping Trained in America Ph.D.s from Leaving the Economy Act (acronym: Staple) was limited to foreign students who earned a Ph.D degree.

It remains uncertain whether Congress will begin debating comprehensive immigration reform proposals this year. The immigration framework, though, does provide some details about the direction the Democrats are heading on tech-related immigration. At the same time, it leaves out many important specifics, such as whether the cap on H-1B visas should be changed.

"This is not the legislation, this is just an outline," said Eleanor Pelta, first vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But among the things the proposal would do is remove some of pressure on H-1B applicants with advanced degrees. she said.

Adopting the proposal's Green Card plan would technically eliminate the need for the 20,000 H-1B visas set aside annually for advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities. In all, 85,000 H-1B visas are issued under the current cap.

Pelta said it's unclear what would happen to the 20,000 visas for advanced degree holders, but said that ideally it would lead to the elimination of an H-1B visa cap altogether. "What prior years have really shown is that it's the market that really drives usage -- if people don't need professional workers they are not going to hire H-1bs," she said.

The framework does include a broad goal of limiting H-1B visa use in individual companies, an idea included in earlier legislation proposed by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill). The Grassley-Durbin plan calls for limiting the number of H-1B and L-1 visa workers to 50% of a company's workforce.

Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the proposed bill moves in the right direction, but added that it doesn't resolve a number of immigration issues.

For instance, the criteria for a Green Card "are so loose that the it invites some bad outcomes." A master's degree can be completed in one academic year without oversight by accepted accreditation bodies. For example, a program accredited by a state body may lack approval by Abet Inc., formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, he said.

The Green Card change proposed in the framework would "create huge opportunities for educational institutions to provide degrees tailored to take advantage of this immigration proposal," said Hira. "There is nothing that prevents 'diploma mills' from sprouting up."

The framework would expand the rules for being judged H-1B dependent -- a firm is considered today H-1B dependent if more than 15% of their workers hold the visas. Those rules also require that companies attest that they actively recruited American workers and are not displacing or replacing U.S. citizens with foreign workers.

But Hira said the "regulations requiring active recruitment and non-displacement of American workers are clearly ineffective since many large H-1B dependent firms continue to be at the top H-1B employers while never hiring an American."

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 pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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