Senator Wants 55,000 Green Cards For Tech Grads - InformationWeek

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Senator Wants 55,000 Green Cards For Tech Grads

Sen. John Cornyn proposes replacing visa lottery with program that allocates more permanent resident visas to foreign STEM students at U.S. universities.

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A U.S. senator has introduced legislation that would replace a program which reserves up to 55,000 permanent resident visas for foreign nationals through a lottery with one that saves the same number of so-called green cards for students graduating from advanced science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs at U.S. universities.

"In the global competition for the world's best and brightest minds in math and science, the United States should take a backseat to no one," said Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), in statement.

Cornyn's bill, the Securing the Talent America Requires for the 21st Century (STAR) Act, would allocate 55,000 green cards to foreign students enrolled in graduate level STEM programs at U.S. institutions. To offset those visas, the so-called diversity lottery would be eliminated. The latter program is intended to boost immigration from underrepresented countries.

Cornyn said those visas would be better saved for individuals who can bring high-tech skills to the U.S. economy. "I am confident the STAR Act will bolster American competitiveness and provide a stronger foundation for long-term economic growth and job creation," said Cornyn.

[ Why do American employers say they can't fill their high-tech jobs with domestic workers? See Skills Shortage? Quit Whining. ]

As the visa system currently stands, foreign tech grads can generally work in the United States on temporary, H-1B visas. But those visas are good only for a maximum of six years, after which many H-1B workers are forced to return to their native countries because there is no direct path from the H-1B to an employment-based green card.

Tech companies and immigration advocates have long maintained that the United States needs to make it easier for workers with advanced STEM skills to remain in the country, arguing that the supply of domestic tech workers is insufficient to meet current demand. Microsoft recently opened a campus in Vancouver, Canada, about 130 miles north of its Redmond, Wash. headquarters, which it is stocking with overseas workers that were unable to obtain U.S. visas.

"The American economy needs these highly sought after graduates, and we can't afford to let our U.S. immigration system fall behind in the global race for talent by losing these graduates to foreign competitors," said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel. ACIP supports the STAR Act.

Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney also supports liberalization of immigration rules for tech specialists. "I'd staple a green card to the diploma of anybody who's got a degree in math, science, a Master's degree, PhD," Romney said during a debate in November.

But critics of Cornyn's bill say it ignores the fact that there are thousands of unemployed, U.S.-born tech pros still looking for work after having been laid off in recent years, whether because of the economic downturn or other reasons, like outsourcing. "If Senator Cornyn wants to secure talent in the U.S. he should be more concerned with the vast number of U.S. tech workers losing their jobs as work is offshored," said Lee Conrad, national coordinator for [email protected], a group that advocates on behalf of IBM workers.

Cornyn introduced the STAR Act to the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security. The subcommittee has yet to act on the bill.

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