High-skill visa reform needs action by Congress, Obama says

U.S. is making some changes to visa processes, but reform requires congressional help

WASHINGTON -- President Obama's administration has been tweaking U.S. immigration policy and making little changes where it can to try to encourage the type of immigrant it wants.

But Obama on Tuesday said that real changes to high-skill immigration policy will require action from Congress.

"On the high-skill immigration area, that's not something that we can necessarily do on our own," Obama said at a meeting of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

"We can expedite some of the visas that are already in place and try to streamline that process to make it move faster," the president said, but "we may need some legislative help on that area."

The leading Democratic reform effort so far is by U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) Her bill would give a green card to any foreign student who graduates with an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering or math, but her bill is not getting Republican support. In the Senate, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been promising an immigration reform bill, but has yet to produce one.

Tom Kalil, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy deputy director for policy, said Obama has several goals for skills-based immigration.

The president has "explicitly called for, number one, increasing the number of green cards for high skilled workers," Kalil said in a briefing with reporters regarding a new program for entrepreneurs offered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).

Kalil said the president also supports a specific visa for immigrants who create start-ups. Obama also supports improving the education of U.S. students in technical areas, Kalil said, citing the president's goal of increasing the number of U.S. engineering graduates.

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said providing green cards to foreign graduates with advanced degrees "is the perfect example where legislation is needed."

In the absence of any congressional reforms on skills-based immigration, the White House is seeing what changes it can make to immigration processes. Last month, for example the White House took steps to make it easier for immigrants interested in investing in the U.S. to get a visa.

Now, the Obama administration is trying to get better insight into the changes it needs to make by creating an "Entrepreneurs in Residence" program to learn from immigrant investors, the USCIS said.

The program will seek a variety of immigrant investors, entrepreneurs and others to work with USCIS staff and offer ideas and feedback on government immigration policies and practices, Mayorkas said. "We do want a full breadth of exposure to different ideas," he said. The details of the program, how people are selected and the program's length are still being worked out.

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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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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