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Keeping the Brightest Scientists in the US

Daniel B. Moskowitz

Will the several bills recently introduced in Congress actually help keep foreign students in the US after they receive their advanced science degrees?

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Although most foreign students who seek to earn their advanced science degrees from US universities and schools are welcomed into the country, that welcome is short-lived. After graduation, these newly minted Ph.D.s face an immigration policy that restricts their employment and stay in the country.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama mentioned the problems arising from this policy. "Others come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities. But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us. It makes no sense."

Several members of Congress have drafted legislation that would pave new ways for Ph.D. students in STEM fields to stay and work in the US. Source; The University of Pittsburgh

Several members of Congress have drafted legislation that would pave new ways for those students—at least those in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields—to stay and work in the US. In the past two weeks, three such measures have been introduced.

"There has been a proliferation of this kind of bill," said Bob Sakaniwa, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "We really like seeing attention being put on the issue, but it's only a first step."

Despite bipartisan support of the ideas behind these introductions, there's little chance that any of these bills will actually pass in the current Congress.

Lawmakers have been unwilling to pass a bill dealing with only this single aspect of immigration policy, and consensus on immigration reform in today's Washington climate is unlikely. For example, a bill that aimed to remove the per-country quotas on work visas was introduced last year. While it was passed by the House of Representatives, it got nowhere in the Senate.

Furthermore, "election year politics adds a layer of difficulty in getting anything done," said Sakaniwa.

Meanwhile, support for science immigration reform is far from universal. For instance, Rutgers University professor of public policy Hal Salzman noted that the current immigration policies allow graduates to stay in the US for employment purposes for 29 months. Right now, said Salzman, more than two-thirds of foreign STEM Ph.D.s do so.

Each of the most recently introduced bills, with confusingly similar acronymic titles, has its own process to keeps STEM grads in the US.

First, there’s the STAR Act, which was introduced on May 15 and proposes reallocating 55,000 visas a year from the current lottery system to STEM graduates who have US job offers in hand. Then the SMART Jobs Act was introduced on May 16, which proposes the creation of a new visa category for students entering STEM degree programs. This new system would promise a year of legal residency in the US after earning their degree, and if they receive full-time employment in a scientific field within that year, they would become a legal permanent resident. And finally there’s START-UP Act 2.0, which was initially drafted by the Kauffman Foundation and was introduced on May 22. This bills also proposes a new visa category for STEM graduates, promising permanent residence if they work in the US in technical capacities for five years.

"The immigration code is so complex that you can slice it up many different ways," Sakaniwa explains. But, he said, none of these bills has accumulated enough support to be considered a leading contender.

Keywords:  immigration